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THE ECONOMY is crumbling and street protests are turning violent, but Rio de Janeiro put all worries aside for the opening of carnival Friday.
The annual extravaganza marking the last days before Lent in mostly Catholic Brazil was to kick off officially with the handing over of the city keys to the carnival king, a jolly, samba dancing figure known as Rei Momo.
The first samba parades were to get underway at the Sambodromo stadium shortly afterwards, climaxing with the elite contests running through Sunday and Monday nights.
For days, Rio and cities across the country have been gearing up for the party.
Streets are gradually emptying, most businesses are closing until next Thursday, and even the usually raucous chamber of Congress in the capital Brasilia was deserted as the clock ticked down.
The chance to have fun can't come soon enough for Rio, which is reeling from a cocktail of crises that make the glory days of hosting South America's first Olympic Games six months ago feel light years away.
Crime is on the rise and 9,000 troops were deployed on the streets in the run-up to the carnival after relatives of police officers angry at late payment of salaries tried to blockade police stations.
A similar but bigger strike in neighboring Espiritu Santo state paralyzed the entire police force, leading to an orgy of violence, including more than 140 murders in less than a fortnight.
Add in a two-year recession, record unemployment and brutal battles between riot police and anti-austerity protesters in the center of Rio earlier this month, and Cariocas -- as city residents are called -- need a break.
"The carnival looks like a party and it is one, but it's much more than that,"said writer Gregorio Duvivier, a prominent carnival participant.
"It often serves to help us put aside our problems for a few days.... I think that it's even greater in time of crisis, because it's even more needed."
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