Huge sweaty crowds filled streets across Brazil Saturday as the annual carnival took full hold of the country, sweeping it up in a noisy confusion of near-naked bodies, drinking and dancing.

In many cities, innumerable "blocos" -- processions led by trucks blaring samba music with bikini-clad women gyrating and followed by a mass of participants and vendors -- turned neighborhoods into huge parties barred to traffic.

Tens of thousands of tourists and locals packed into the center of Rio de Janeiro in a barely moving press of grinning humanity for the "bloco" put on by one of the city's most popular groups, the Cordao da Bola Preta.

Dozens of other musical crushes were planned for other parts of Rio, as the self-proclaimed host of the "best public party on earth" headed towards its climax: the samba school parades Sunday and Monday whose semi-nude dancers and fantastical floats have come to symbolize Brazil's carnival.

This year's celebrations seemed even more effervescent than usual. Brazil is basking in a general feeling of prosperity far removed from the economic chill fallen on other countries, such as the United States.

Forecast growth of 4.5 percent, record direct foreign investment, a seemingly unstoppable rise of the real against the dollar, and blooming activity in the stock market have encouraged that thinking.

"I think carnival 2008 may be reflecting some of that. Things do feel like they're getting better," said one bare-chested Brazilian reveller in Rio, aircraft mechanic Alexandre Castro, 34, from Sao Paulo.

He said that, in any case, carnival was a time of "happiness -- all our daily problems are left behind."

One controversy, though, has dogged the Rio event: an attempt by a samba school to enter a float which would have had a Hitler dancing atop a pile of bodies representing Holocaust victims.

A judge banned the float at a Jewish group's urging. But public opinion has been divided on the decision, with some saying the ban amounted to censorship and was worse than the perceived bad taste.

The float's creator, Paulo Barros, went on television in tears to insist the entry was "very respectful and was meant to represent the Holocaust so that that never happens again. It's a shame people didn't understand."

His school is now to enter a float designed to be an allegory defending "freedom of expression."

In Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, the parades began in front of 30,000 people, with the country's commemoration of 100 years of Japanese immigration taking pride of place.

The samba school Unidos de Vila Maria showed off a 136-meter long float on which Samurais whipped the crowd into a frenzy while a television presenter of Japanese origin, Sabrina Sato, danced around in a gold-and-feather outfit that threatened a wardrobe malfunction at every moment.

The festivities surrounding carnival are meant to be a last indulgence in excesses before the 40-day period of fasting traditionally associated with Lent in the Christian calendar.

Other Latin American countries also have their own, smaller versions.

In Argentina, around a thousand people attended the carnival in the northeast town of Gualeguaychu for a similar display of bikinis and floats.

"Most of the tourists are Argentines, but there are more and more Europeans, Canadians and even a group of Chinese," a spokesman for the local tourist office said.

Bolivia's carnival kicked off in the presidential palace La Paz in more folkloric fashion, with the indigenous crowd paying homage to the Earth. It was to hit its peak Tuesday with more public displays.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 2, 2008 (AFP)


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