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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 February 2008, 13:06 GMT
Rows dog Rio carnival preparations
By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Rio de Janeiro

Mask as part of preparations for Rio carnival
The carnival is the highlight of the year for thousands of people
Carnival celebrations get fully under way in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro this weekend, with around 700,000 tourists joining the party, but preparations for the event have not been without controversy.

A float which portrayed the bodies of naked victims of the Holocaust was banned after Jewish leaders in Rio sought an injunction.

A few weeks earlier, one of the city's famous samba schools was at the centre of a damaging controversy over alleged links to drug traffickers.

Even so, for thousands of people in samba schools based in the Rio de Janeiro's poorest shanty towns or favelas, carnival is the highlight of the year.

Each year the schools choose a theme, often a major social or historical issue, that is illustrated in their floats, costumes and samba songs.

The float trivialised the Holocaust, said the judge

Warning: Some may find the enlarged image disturbing

But a decision by Viradouro, one of the best known schools, to reflect on the Holocaust as a warning for the world proved just too controversial.

Rio's Jewish community was dismayed at the idea of a carnival float depicting piles of naked Holocaust victims, and even more aghast at reported plans to have a dancing Hitler in the parade.

After a judge agreed, the float was dismantled, as an emotional designer Paulo Barros looked on.

"I think it is very sad," he said, with tears in his eyes. "We were trying to make a serious work, and people think we are trying to demean this or make it seem trivial.

"Viradouro is going to turn this around, and have found a solution... we are now going to concentrate on freedom of speech."

Damaging controversy

It was not the only controversy to surround the carnival this year.

Nilo Figueiredo, president of Portela samba school
The samba school would only be embroiled in drug trafficking if they want that. In my school I don't want this and my community doesn't want this
Nilo Figueiredo

In recent months there has been a new shadow over this world-famous event which has faced questions in the past about links to illegal funding.

Mangueira - one of the most traditional and well known samba schools - has been caught in a controversy over alleged links to drug traffickers.

"What we noticed is that the samba schools normally emerge in poor locations and in these areas there often exists domination by a certain kind of criminal faction," Gilberto Ribeiro, Rio's police chief told the BBC News website.

"And if there is this domination, there is a certain closeness - even without the will of those who direct the samba school. They allow that to happen because they have no way to oppose or fight against it."

'Set expression free'

It is partly to combat allegations like this that the government and major sponsors are to provide a record level of funding for carnival, to give the samba schools greater independence.

The government hopes more official funding for the event will make a difference.

Preparation of a Rio carnival float
Various controversies have dogged the run up to this year's carnival

"The big difference I immediately see is to set free this cultural and artistic expression, from something that is dominated by illegal money, by drug traffickers and so on," says Ricardo Lima, director of the Department of Culture at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

"Second and most important is the issue of self-value that these poorer communities get when the state supports their own kind of expression."

In Samba city, in the massive purpose-built buildings where the carnival floats are prepared, the team from Mangueira are putting the final touches to their work

The samba school now has a new team in charge, which prefers not to discuss past problems of alleged links to traffickers, and organiser Max Lopes wants only to look forward to carnival.

"The problems come and go - there are problems in the whole country and in Brazilian politics," he says.

"So I think it is a difficulty like any other, and I think the main thing is that in carnival we have to show the opposite of this - the fantasy that will make people smile and enjoy themselves at least for four days."

'Poor and honest'

In another part of this vast complex, the samba school Portela prepares its huge floats for the carnival. Work is frenzied with just a little time left before the main parade.

Max Lopes, organiser from Mangueira samba school
Max Lopes of Mangueira samba school says problems 'come and go'

Portela, said to be the oldest samba school in Rio, led the way in asking for financial help from the government, and says it is very welcome at a time when costs are rising.

But its leaders also say the controversy over Mangueira does not reflect the reality of the carnival.

"A favela is a community where 90% of the people are poor, honest and hard working," Nilo Figueiredo, president of Portela, told the BBC News website.

"We cannot mix one thing with another - the samba school would only be embroiled in drug trafficking if they want that. In my school I don't want this and my community doesn't want this."

But Maria Laura, a carnival judge, says not everyone agrees that pumping more money into the event is a good way to resolve the problems of the past.

"If they simply give money and they won't tell anybody how they are spending the money, there will probably be many problems of corruption and bad influences, and the presence of the traffickers won't necessarily go away," she warns.

For many in Brazil, the carnival is on a pedestal along with football, and it attracts passionate support from millions celebrating all over the country. Those celebrations are as much a part of carnival as the TV pictures which are seen all over the world.

And here in Rio for the next few days it will be a chance to set aside the problems confronting Brazil's most famous city - and its equally famous carnival - and to party in the way that Brazilians do with such style.

The Rio Carnival takes a great deal of organisation and preparation. Are you getting ready for the Carnival? Do you live there? Will you be there? We are looking for images of the Carnival coming together and in full swing. What is life like in Rio when a carnival has come back into town? Tell us what you are doing if you are in Rio this year during the celebrations.

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The controversial float

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