Reflections on Brazil’s nightclub fire

The tragedy shows how the Latin giant is still plagued by underdevelopment despite its booming economic growth.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff holds
President Dilma Rousseff knows very well that perceptions of insecurity in Brazil will have the effect of scaring away foreign investment, and could even damage Brazil's recent recognition as a BRIC member [AFP]

The recent nightclub fire in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul briefly placed the awakening Latin giant beneath the media glare of global scrutiny. This time the media attention was not focusing on Brazil’s astonishing economic rise, but responding to a tragedy that exposed the country’s social and political vulnerabilities that no amount of economic growth can overcome. The fire that killed some 240 people broke out on the night of January 27 in the university town of Santa Maria during a concert in Kiss nightclub. The tragic event disclosed some unsavoury truths about life in Brazil. 

It has been exciting for Brazilians to have their country finally noticed by the world. Such attention was dramatised by Brazil being listed among the rising stars of a globalising world economy as a BRIC, along with such other emerging global players as Russia, India and China.

This global emergence of Brazil is mainly responsive to its impressive rate of economic growth over the course of the past decade, its immense size and large population, its abundant energy resource, as well as its Carnival spirit, exclusive resorts, flourishing middle class, and fun loving demeanour that endears Brazil to the casual visitor. 

As Brazilians like to say, “This is our time!” And the world reinforces this impression, nowhere more forcefully than by selecting Brazil as the host for the world’s two most spectacular upcoming sporting events: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. 

It seemed like there was no stopping Brazil. Then comes this tragic incident that reminds the world that their Latin American sweetheart despite its booming growth and dynamic economic progress may still be haunted by the ghosts of underdevelopment. The Santa Maria fire has been first and foremost understood locally as more than just an incident. It is a metaphor for the traumas of governance. 

‘The little Brazilian way’

The ravages caused by the fire remains puzzling, especially for Brazilians – an accident in a crowded nightclub that took spread in a matter of seconds. Brazilians are still asking themselves many questions: “How could this have happened?”, “Could it have been prevented?”, “Who was responsible?”, “What should be done to prevent future events of this kind?” At first there was an inclination to blame it on the culture, on what Brazilians call “jeitinho”, which can be translated as the “little Brazilian way”. 

 Mourners cry for justice after Brazil fire

Jeitinho describes the distinctive Brazilian way of using an array of shifty techniques to bend the rules in order to find a way around practical obstacles. In effect, Brazilians usually say to each other, “Relax, we’ll find a way”. From this widely held perspective, the fire wasn’t just an unfortunate accident in a crowded club, it was a perfect embodiment of all that is wrong with the jeitinho approach in the modern reality. The owners of the nightclub were operating under an expired safety licence, they had maxed out the capacity of the venue, the fire extinguishers were not functioning, and cheap unsafe pyrotechnic materials were allowed to be used by the band at the show. 

Such a fire might just as easily not produced anything worthy of news, but it led to 240 deaths, and to make matters worse, they were mostly university students heralding Brazil’s bright future. The event has made many Brazilians lament the jeitinho mentality, contending that it embodies all that is wrong in the country at every level. The people of Santa Maria in the immediacy of the event spilled onto streets demanding justice.

Incendiary comments in the media blamed the government’s loose regulatory system and demanded that bureaucrats do their jobs properly. Brazil’s fervent Catholicism made many ask in desperation, “Why god was not looking over the people of Santa Maria on that evening?” Football legend Pele chimed in with his own sensible comment in Twitter: “the government has to prioritize the safety issues of events in this country!” 

At the same time, the treatment of the fire in the international media was mainly concerned with sensationalist details and lurid speculations. For instance, one publication even referred to a reported suicide attempt by the club owner in a bathroom after he had been taken into custody. The media became briefly obsessed with the fire as an opportunity to show the world how still primitive were the countries of the Global South, including such a star performer as Brazil. Underneath this international reaction was the developed world’s fear of the less developed as dangerous and violent. The obvious sub-text of shining the light on Brazilian failures was to make the claim that such an occurrence could never happen in Switzerland! Any sensitive reader was reminded of the colonialist myth that we live in a world where only the West is fully “civilised”.   

Of course, underneath this attention was the surfacing of some nervousness about the prospects of having the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil. Undoubtedly, this also magnified the importance of the fire, motivating demands for reforms not only to avoid such incidents, but to reassure the world that Brazil will be a reliable host for these high profile international events. Will this event be a useful catalyst in the preparation for the games? Probably to some extent, but it seems overly optimistic to think that the deep infrastructural and political problems linked to jeitinho can be solved in such a short time. 

Overcoming vulnerabilities 

Certainly, the country’s current mainstream president, Dilma Rousseff, once a Marxist guerrilla and a survivor of torture, has a reputation for intimidating even her closest confidants. She is aware of how difficult it will be to address these problematic aspects of governance in Brazil with deep roots in the popular culture. She is exerting daily pressure on the mayors of Brazilian cities to ensure the security and safety of public venues. 

“Brazil is in many ways impenetrable for the outsider, with misleading impressions of both a positive and negative character.”

With the negative images of the nightclub fire in the background of public consciousness, Brazilian authorities have little choice but to do all that is possible to establish international confidence in Brazil as the setting for the upcoming games. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It is not just a matter of hosting global sporting events. President Rousseff knows very well that perceptions of insecurity in Brazil will have the effect of scaring away foreign investment, and could even damage Brazil’s recent recognition as a BRIC member. 

We need to ask whether it is fair to treat the Santa Maria nightclub fire as a metaphor for Brazil’s rapid growth on the shaky foundation of jeitinho. Is the fire a microcosm of the country as a whole? Are things happening too fast for Brazilians just as the nightclub fire spreading lethally in a few seconds? Or is it media hype to view an incident of this sort as more than an unfortunate accident that calls attention to corrupt practices and the need for stiffer regulation? After all, deadly fires occur everywhere, including Switzerland! Of course, rapid development can accentuate some deeper cultural shortcomings, but let’s not exaggerate. 

The world has been watching Brazil’s rise while others stagnate, and reporting on this fire only adds confusion to a genuine effort to situate Brazil in the world. Brazil is in many ways impenetrable for the outsider, with misleading impressions of both a positive and negative character. In the end, a fuller sense of jeitinho may be the key to greater realism about Brazil, what to expect, how to interpret.

It is important to appreciate that jeitinho not only describes the practice of bending rules for selfish advantage, but also how to be resourceful in finding solutions where none seems to exist, a kind of street smart problem-solving creativity. It is reasonable to look critically at jeitinho, but it should not be overlooked that part of the reason why Brazil has grown so fast despite many obstacles has to do with this cultural resourcefulness. 

One thing is certain, even though Brazil is likely to remain a mystery to us, all persons of good will want Brazil to overcome these vulnerabilities and fulfill its fantastic potential. The country holds a cherished place in our hearts with its convivial image, its benign foreign policy agenda, and its lively and joyful people. And what better occasions to celebrate this triumphant Brazilian coming of age story than to do it all together at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics? 

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a freelance writer and translator currently living in Brazil. With a TV and film background she is working on innovation and creativity projects in Brazil and Turkey.