Analysis: Nightclub fire exposes faults in Brazil's big ambitions

RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA Mon Jan 28, 2013 3:23pm EST

1 of 6. An exterior view of Boate Kiss nightclub is seen after a fire occurred, in the southern city of Santa Maria, 187 miles (301 km) west of the state capital of Porto Alegre, January 27, 2013. A fire in a nightclub killed at least 245 people in southern Brazil on Sunday when a band's pyrotechnics show set the building ablaze and fleeing patrons were unable to find the emergency exits in the ensuing panic, officials said. The blaze in the southern city of Santa Maria was started when a band member or someone from its production team ignited a flare, which then set fire to the ceiling, said Luiza Sousa, a civil police official. The fire spread 'in seconds,' she said. An estimated 500 people were in the Boate Kiss nightclub when the fire broke out early on Sunday, and many were unable to find the exits as dark smoke quickly filled the room. At least one exit was locked, trapping hundreds inside to die, many from asphyxiation as they inhaled smoke, police said.

Credit: Reuters/Edison Vara (BRAZIL - Tags: DISASTER)

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RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) - A nightclub fire that killed 231 people is prompting Brazilians to worry that a culture of haphazard regulation and lax accountability stand in the way of achieving the country's lofty, first-world ambitions.

Brazil, Latin America's biggest country, has been praised by economists and investors over the past decade during a boom that made it one of the world's most promising emerging markets. That promise raised Brazil's profile in global trade and diplomacy and even helped it secure the 2014 World Cup of soccer and 2016 Olympics, major sporting events for which security and order are paramount.

President Dilma Rousseff, who wept at the impromptu morgue set up near the devastated nightclub in southern Brazil on Sunday, is fond of reaffirming Brazil's march toward the developed world. "Our country today not only has international recognition," she said in a speech last year, but also "the confidence of growing self-esteem of us Brazilians that we can transform it into a developed nation."

But for many living the day-to-day reality of Brazil's chaotic cities, crumbling roads and lawless hinterlands, the country's coming of age often seems elusive.

As Brazilians digested details of a blocked exit and other safety violations at the nightclub, fingers began pointing at lawmakers, regulators and an overall culture that critics say has long tolerated the bare minimum of compliance for everything from the rules of the road to building codes.

"The cause of those deaths wasn't anything complex," said Moacyr Duarte, an emergency management and disaster specialist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "They were simple elements - administrative flaws, regulatory flaws, inspection flaws, planning flaws. They all led to tragedy."

The sentiment is echoed by everyday Brazilians.

"A tolerance of not following the rules exists here," said Flavia Rodrigues, a 34-year-old attorney in Brasilia, the capital. "This tragedy could have been avoided if only there were enough care."

To be sure, Brazil has no monopoly on accidents.

An eerily similar tragedy killed 100 people at a U.S. nightclub a decade ago and another, the following year, killed 194 in Argentina.

But Sunday's deaths, most of them university students, add to a tally of grim statistics that paint Brazil as a particularly dangerous country, even compared with many of its Latin American neighbors.

During the recent decade of economic growth, which led to a building boom, labor unions and human rights groups lambasted the government and construction companies for a spike in deaths and accidents at poorly regulated job sites. Nearly 40,000 people died at building sites in 2011, according to government data, compared with 35,000 in 2009.

And consider deaths on Brazil's crowded and poorly maintained roads. The country averages more than 18 highway deaths per 100,000 people per year, compared with only about 10 in high-income countries, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank. The tolls in nearby Argentina, Colombia and Chile average only about 13.

Most troubling, perhaps, are the country's high murder rates. According to United Nations data, Brazil averaged 21.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009. Although lower than some Latin American countries with longstanding social conflicts, the rate is multiples higher than in Russia (11.2), India (3.4), or China (1.0), other emerging economies with which it is often grouped.

After a recent surge of violence in Sao Paulo, the result of a turf war between gangs and police in Brazil's biggest city, 91 percent of those surveyed there feel unsafe, according to a recent report by the Ibope polling institute.

CULTURE OF IMPUNITY

Making matters worse, murders, like many crimes in a country with a slow judicial system, routinely go unpunished.

A 2012 report by Brazil's federal public prosecutor compared the number of homicides that are solved in the country to those in developed nations. While only about 8 percent of Brazil's murders get resolved, the figure reaches 65 percent in the United States, 90 percent in Britain, and 80 percent in France.

The lapses underscore what is widely perceived to be a lack of accountability, even when deaths result.

"There is an overall culture of impunity," says Julio Jacobo Waiselfiz, a sociologist who keeps the "Map of Violence," an annual tally of crime statistics in Brazil. "That means murderers get away, that roads don't get fixed, and that rules and enforcement still don't keep up with the promise of economic growth."

On Monday, the debate took center stage as Brazilian media, local governments, and even foreign officials weighed in.

"In Sao Paulo, city hall lacks the resources to inspect major events," read a headline in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, citing a study by the state legislature. The state government issued a press release touting ongoing training by local security forces for search and rescue operations.

Jerome Valcke, the secretary general of FIFA, soccer's governing body, on a Monday visit to Brasilia sought to dispel talk that the nightclub tragedy raised safety concerns for stadiums and World Cup planning already subject to heavy criticism because of widespread delays and cost overruns.

The fire "has nothing to do with soccer, has nothing to do with stadiums," he told reporters. Routine security rules for World Cup events, he added, would ensure "we can empty the stadiums in less than a few minutes."

Brazilians certainly hope so. Many recall the partial collapse of a stadium in Salvador, a World Cup venue in Brazil's northeast, caused by jumping by fans in 2007, killing seven and injuring scores. Or how three tall buildings in Rio de Janeiro crumbled one night last year, killing five people and scarring the center of Brazil's most popular city for tourism.

In a letter to O Globo newspaper, a geotechnical engineer recently warned that downpours during the ongoing rainy season could cause a repeat of cataclysmic flooding and mudslides in nearby mountains that killed more than 900 people in 2011. Though the regional and federal governments have invested in technology to alert residents of pending rains, he warned that little has been done to keep people from staying or building anew on steep hillsides dotted with shoddy housing.

"There is nothing natural about these disasters," wrote Alberto Sayão, the engineer. "The country can no longer bear the impunity caused by the leniency, omission and incompetence of the authorities."

(Additional reporting by Eduardo Simões in São Paulo; Editing by Brian Winter, Todd Benson and Cynthia Osterman)

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Comments (4)
Mr.Tubarc wrote:
There is a continuous undergoing degradation of public services in Brazil that sometimes like this tragedy can end up harming many innocent ones.
My concern is about a cultural awareness regarding public services with broad corruption harming the functioning of Brazilian society.
Corruption sometimes is beyond grabbing public resources but failing on important services that can affect public need of protection towards a normal functioning.
I am a scientist pursuing a sort of ‘scientific breakthrough’ in the US but I think it is time to start demanding more seriousness and responsibility from our leaders.
Those people perishing in this unacceptable tragedy are the top cultural students from an academic city.
This sort of tragedy is just untenable to a country that wants to host the World Cup and Olympic Games.
We need to change our perception for public services that need honesty, seriousness, and responsibility.

Jan 28, 2013 8:39pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Mr.Tubarc wrote:
Why this sort of tragedy is taking place in Brazil?
The answer is quite simple. The public system is running toward a miserable degradation based on bribery, corruption, cronyism, and incompetence plus lack of responsibility.
Our democracy is faked in the basic conceptions as we are forced to vote picking candidates that are not different on their simple goals of ransacking the public system.
After being elected they have a huge number of public positions to distribute among themselves regardless of any competency to carry out such required duties.
The wrongdoing is broad and the consequences depend on their nature. Many students attending public schools can finish it illiterate as they are naturally promoted by LAW having no need to do exams or prove they learned enough to change grades. So, they get their basic education being unable to read or write.
I am a PhD scientist that knows what is going on: Power vs. knowledge. More and more power is given to people with lower and intellectual capacity and less knowledge to perform their duties.
Also, intelligent people are more independent and have a deeper comprehension on the importance of honesty. Intelligent people do not get much power in the chain as they are harder to bend and corrupt.
How much percent of Brazilians would bother voting if it were not mandatory?
The system is not working and protects itself pretending. . . my condolences to those one perished on such public failing leadership!
How much worse will it get till we get resolve to pick right pathways?

Jan 28, 2013 9:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Mr.Tubarc wrote:
Please, let me reveal to the international community the inner functioning of Brazil.

We are a creative and talented people best in the world on football, or soccer, just because such human activity is neither dependent on government control nor on educational affairs. We are also famous because of our songs and samba as another occupational blessing in the same profile.
I always studied in public school but I ended getting a public job that the government spent around a million dollars on my PhD in the US. I speak French as well. Two years after returning from my PhD and had bumped to a sort of ‘scientific breakthrough’ developing new conceptions into hydrodynamics that today are issued patents in the US I was just fired from my job. Instead of fighting in court for my honored right to work I just concentrated all my efforts toward my science that today opens room for a new science I call it Hydrotechnology to bring Hydrogeology conceptions to the fluidic devices in the patenting system updating a century of negligence to Hydrology. My breakthrough makes around 50K patents obsolete in the USPTO and open room for another 200K new ones when the office start honoring common knowledge and issue IP rights.

I have been wise enough to carry out my project and bear the hardship of being disposed for excessive honesty and competency. I could manage and handle the consequence of a failing leadership that got rid of my serious work. I am an intelligent man and I can do it and I will continue up to the end. But, now those 231 young people wasted so shamefully because of a simple public negligence I feel a need to expose to the international community the core of our society make up. I have been suffering and struggling but now I see my fellow Brazilians on a much and much harder situation than mine.

Oh my God, an Agronomy faculty lost 31 students that are not returning after the recess. In one class eight sits will be empty because life was just erased by worsening public affairs.

We need to reveal to the world how much our leaders are failing and the pain we bear in our hearts.

Jan 28, 2013 10:00pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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