Can Carnival cool tensions in Brazil and beyond?

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Can Carnival cool tensions in Brazil and beyond?
Performers from the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school parade during carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Rio de Janeiro's samba schools vied for the title of the year's best in an over-the-top, all-night-long Carnival parade at the city's iconic Sambadrome.(AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
A performer from the Unidos de Vila Isabel samba school parades during Carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Rio de Janeiro's samba schools vied for the title of the year's best in an over-the-top, all-night-long Carnival parade at the city's iconic Sambadrome. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
A performer from the Unidos de Vila Isabel samba school parades during Carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Rio de Janeiro's samba schools vied for the title of the year's best in an over-the-top, all-night-long Carnival parade at the city's iconic Sambadrome. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Performers from the Unidos de Vila Isabel samba school parade during carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Rio de Janeiro's samba schools vied for the title of the year's best in an over-the-top, all-night-long Carnival parade at the city's iconic Sambadrome. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A reveler poses for photos at the Banda de Ipanema carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. People gathered Saturday for one of many parades before Carnival which starts Feb. 28. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
A multicolored dog is seen during the "Blocao" dog carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. About 100 dogs have had their day at a pre-Carnival bash in Rio de Janeiro. A 10-man brass band and a singer belting out Rio's anthem song "Cidade Maravilhosa" (Marvelous City) kicked off the four-footed fest as dog owners gathered to party down with pooches on Copacabana beach Sunday. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
A couple in clown costumes touch noses during the Boitata block party, a pre-Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. People gathered for one of the many parades before the official start of Carnival on Feb. 28. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
A reveler with a Mexican wrestling mask, poses for a photo at the Carmelitas block party during Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Rio de Janeiro's over-the-top Carnival that opened Friday is the highlight of the year for many local residents. Hundreds of thousands of merrymakers will take to Rio's streets in the nearly 500 open-air "bloco" parties. The most traditional of these bashes is expected to attract more than 1 million people to Rio's center area on Saturday. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Performers from the Academicos do Grande Rio samba school parade during carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, early Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A performer from the Beija Flor samba school parades during carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Performers from the Beija Flor samba school parade on a float during carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Drum queen Bruna Almeida, from Sao Clemente samba school, dances during carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Nominee for Queen of the 2013 Santa Cruz carnival Noemi Hormiga performs on February 26, 2014 in Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the Canary island of Tenerife, Spain. The Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife brings every year thousands of revellers. Santa Cruz is the closest European equivalent to the Brazilian Carnival from Rio Janeiro. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Nominee for Queen of the 2013 Santa Cruz carnival Jennifer Alonso performs on February 26, 2014 in Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the Canary island of Tenerife, Spain. The Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife brings every year thousands of revellers. Santa Cruz is the closest European equivalent to the Brazilian Carnival from Rio Janeiro. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 22: Revelers celebrate while posing at a 'bloco' street party during pre-Carnival festivities on February 22, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Carnival officially begins on February 28 but pre-festivities have already begun. Brazil is gearing up to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images,)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 22: A young reveler poses at a 'bloco' street party during pre-Carnival festivities on February 22, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Carnival officially begins on February 28 but pre-festivities have already begun. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images,)
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Feb 28 (Reuters) - 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 protest."

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 condoms.

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)
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