| RIO DE JANEIRO
RIO DE JANEIRO Feb 28 Carnival got under way
across Brazil on Friday interspersed with simmering
antigovernment protests and alongside preparations in 12 cities
for the upcoming soccer World Cup.
The festivities, which each year rouse millions to revel in
nearly a week of parades and block parties, are the first since
a series of mass demonstrations last June, when Brazilians took
to the streets to decry rising prices, a sluggish economy, poor
public services and corruption.
Although those protests have ebbed, smaller antigovernment
groups have continued to agitate in major cities, sometimes
clashing with police.
In Rio de Janeiro, home to Brazil's best-known Carnival
festivities, activists in recent days have been rallying members
on social media to remind revelers of the issues that riled so
many during the earlier demonstrations.
While they are unlikely to spoil the occasion for the nearly
5 million partiers expected, protests would provide a novel
counterpoint to the gaiety, more traditionally marked by mass
debauchery, litter-strewn streets and occasional vandalism.
Last year's demonstrators successfully used a widely watched
warmup tournament for the World Cup as a stage to contrast the
billions spent on the soccer event and the 2016 Rio Olympics
with Brazil's feeble investment in public services.
With the World Cup itself starting June 12, activists are
eager to rekindle the anger and angst. "Revelers unite!" wrote
one in an online manifesto for a group dubbed "Occupy Carnival,"
whose aim is to "contaminate Carnival with the spirit of popular
Rio and other major cities are well accustomed to activities
of any stripe during the festival - from good-humored parades by
transvestites to swarms of beachcombing bandits.
The Rio state government said it would deploy nearly 17,000
police officers, 16 percent more than it did last year. Earlier
this week, the government showed off new riot gear and body
armor that officers will be donning for any unrest.
Friday morning, shopkeepers in Ipanema, a beachside Rio
district popular with tourists, had already boarded up windows
to protect their inventory. In Salvador, the northeastern city
where throngs follow massive mobile stages along 25 kilometers
of closed avenues, local media broadcast a smartphone video of a
group of revelers beating a suspected thief.
Meanwhile, authorities in the dozen host cities for the
upcoming soccer games are scrambling to finish stadiums, public
works and other preparations. In Rio, where officials recently
demolished an elevated highway and rerouted much of the traffic
across the city center to make way for new infrastructure,
locals were anticipating worse-than-usual gridlock.
Still, the overall atmosphere is expected to remain festive
throughout Carnival, a tradition whose history lies in a final
binge of sin before the austere Catholic season of Lent. Beer
and liquor advertisements began blanketing the city in recent
days, while government workers staffed stands to hand out free
Friday morning, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes relinquished the key
of the city to Rei Momo, the figurehead king of a celebration
taken so seriously in Brazil that many businesses close. The
stock exchange in São Paulo, the country's biggest city and
financial capital, halts trading during the event from Monday
through mid-day Wednesday, Carnival's traditional end.
(Additional reporting by Felipe Pontes; Editing by Todd Benson
and Prudence Crowther)