Thousands of performers and eight elaborate floats from the Beija-Flor samba school paraded through Rio de Janeiro’s Sambadrome arena last Monday. The 80-minute spectacle, meant to take spectators on a tour of the African country of Equatorial Guinea, was chosen as this year’s winner after receiving a nearly perfect score in every category from the judges.
But underneath the peacock feathers and gyrating dancers, lurked the dark shadow of allegations that a large chunk of the parade was funded by one of Africa’s most oppressive dictators.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea’s 72 year-old leader, reportedly funneled $10 million Brazilian reals (roughly $3.5 million dollars) into sponsoring Beija-Flor’s carnival parade theme. A big fan of Rio’s carnival, the dictator has attended the pre-lenten festivities for more than 10 years.
Considered to be one of the world’s wealthiest and most corrupt leaders, Obiang is accused of squandering Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth and keeping the majority of its 700,000 citizens living in poverty. He has been in power for more than 35 years after leading a bloody coup against his uncle and former dictator Francisco Macias, whom he had executed by firing squad.
Although it is common for samba schools to accept money from companies or countries sponsoring parade themes—past parades have been accused of laundering drug money and being funded by an illegal gambling scheme called the jogo do bixo—no school has ever received such a large sum. While many are shocked by the decision to crown Beija-Flor, others believe politics should not taint their performance.
“We chose a theme that would talk about an African country, a country most people knew nothing about. Our concern is carnival, not the political regime,” Beija-Flor president Farid Abraao told G1 news.
According to Federal Police, Obiang arrived to Brazil on February 12th and attended the Sambadrome parades on Sunday and Monday surrounded by tight security. His son Teodorin, 45, also came and was seen dancing with guests and sipping Dom Perignon champagne in two VIP boxes The delegation even received a bow from the sultry Beija-Flor drumline queen, Raissa de Oliveira, who was rumored to be dating Teodorin last year when the theme was chosen.
Teodorin has been under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department since 2011 for corruption, embezzlement and for using illegally obtained funds to purchase millions worth of merchandise and property. A settlement was reached last October when Teodorin agreed to sell back roughly $30 million worth of assets, less than half the original amount sought after.
This is the 13th time Beija-Flor has won Rio de Janeiro’s carnival competition, a two-day event where 12 schools stage open-air Broadway-style productions before thousands of spectators. In addition to earning a giant trophy and the accolades of being a winner, Beija-Flor will also receive additional funding from the city government for next year’s parade.