Flags at half-mast in Santa Maria after night club tragedy

 The three days of national mourning have finished.  Night clubs that closed in sympathy for a night or two have reopened, and most of Brazil is returning to a sort of normal, if carnival, just over a week away, can be called normal.  The television screens are no longer filled with images  of the burning Kiss night club, complete with bodies laid out nearby – images that would never be shown in Britain of weeping relatives and funerals. And meanwhile the death toll by 1 February has crept up from the original 231 to 236, and 86 people are still in intensive care. Santa Maria will take a long time to return to normal – no carnival there this year – and there will never again be a normal for the families that lost their young people. 

For a few days Brazil engaged in an orgy of national grief and anger.  I choose the word ‘orgy’ deliberately, having watched some of the early coverage on the Band TV channel:  together with the images of the bodies, the near hysteria of the presenter, the prurient probing into the emotions of the relatives of the victims.  It was, of course, the second worst tragedy of its kind in recent Brazilian history, and affected young university students, the new, modern Brazil, the sixth economy in the world.

But the tragedy of Santa Maria illustrates brutally how the ‘old’ Brazil coexists alongside the ‘new’, and how the old Brazil can affect – and in extreme cases like this – destroy the lives of its citizens.  The local authority in Santa Maria issued the night club with an operating licence, maybe with the approval of the local fire brigade, since the Santa Maria fire chief has said on television that the venue met safety requirements.  This is blatant nonsense:  the statutory second exit was blocked off and funnelled people towards the main entrance, because the owners were determined to make sure that clients didn’t leave without paying. The premises were apparently overcrowded, with over 900 people in a space with capacity for an oddly precise 691. ‘The more the merrier,’ one of the owners is reported as saying. And why was inflammable foam used on the ceiling of the building? 

Brazil's President in tears after hearing the news of the tragedyAll these questions are being investigated by the police and the Public Ministry, who will no doubt do a thorough job, though probably a lengthy one.  Throughout Brazil local authorities have proclaimed a blitz of safety checks on night clubs and similar venues, and it is to be hoped that they do a more thorough job than the fire brigade did in Santa Maria.

Wider issues are also beginning to be addressed.  One of the most interesting reflections I have come across was an article by Wladimir Pomar in the online newspaper Correio da Cidadania.  Pomar argues that Brazilians must look further than the punishment of those responsible for these deaths, and to the wider questions of the links between business and politics.

‘The tragedy was programmed because all the conditions for its occurrence were in place.  In this sense it was nothing very different from the collapse of the three apartment blocks in Rio de Janeiro [in January 2012], the landslides on the slopes of the mountain region of Teresópolis, and other tragedies that are repeated periodically.

Apartment block collapsing in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, Jan 2012

‘Unfortunately everything points to there being a series of other tragedies programmed in our country, not just in night clubs across most of Brazil, but also connected with the obvious changes in climate that are occurring throughout the world.  The housing estates, gimcrack and solid, built on hillsides and on the banks of streams and rivers, have had their vulnerability to risk increased enormously.  The systems for draining off rainwater in urban areas have become inefficient, especially in towns without many trees in public spaces.

Flood damage in Xerem, January 2013‘It would be possible to list a series of other potentially tragic situations.  Despite this, these issues don’t seem to receive the attention they deserve.  Legislation continues to be incomplete and outdated, not enabling or modernising the public authorities to face even the old risks, let alone the new ones.  So, in homage to the young people swallowed by the tragedy in Santa Maria, perhaps the people of Brazil should not be satisfied just with the punishment of the individuals directly responsible, or with the drafting of stricter rules of the operation of night clubs.

‘Perhaps this is the time to demand, apart from a political reform that abolishes the private funding of political campaigns – one of the reasons for the gaps in the risk monitoring in the operation of private businesses – a more serious reform of Brazilian legislation on the use of agricultural and urban land, and especially the points that constitute serious risks for the population.’

Does this tragedy undermine the thesis of this blog series that Brazil is not a different sort of country, but part of a global system increasingly dominated by profit?  The recent flood damage in Britain is the same sort of disaster that occurred just over a month ago on the hillsides in Rio de Janeiro.  The link between business and politics is strong in Britain:  how many politicians have interests in health care businesses that will benefit from the shrinking of the National Health Service?  What seems clear is that there is a difference of scale:  the politicians likely to head the two chambers of the Brazilian Congress face serious allegations of corruption.  The much publicised corruption trial of the PT leaders doesn’t seem to have stopped business going on as usual. 

The football elite presents the official poster for the 2014 World CupThe Financial Times noted that similar tragedies have occurred in recent years in the US, Russia and Argentina, so that Brazil is not so much more risky.  There seems an implicit anxiety to reassure investors, and perhaps potential tourists, that Brazil will make sure that no tragedies affect foreign fans and sports lovers who come to next year’s World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.  These lives are much more important than those of the 236 young people from an insignificant university in a small town in southern Brazil.

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