News / Americas

Brazil Fire Highlights Larger Cause for President Rousseff

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (R) consoles relatives of victims of a fire at the Boate Kiss nightclub in the southern city of Santa Maria, January 27, 2013.
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (R) consoles relatives of victims of a fire at the Boate Kiss nightclub in the southern city of Santa Maria, January 27, 2013.
Reuters
For a gruff, no-nonsense technocrat known for intimidating even her closest aides, the tears rolling down President Dilma Rousseff's face were especially striking.
 
After receiving a phone call at 7 a.m. on Sunday notifying her of a nightclub fire that killed 235 people in southern Brazil, Rousseff cut short a visit to Chile and was on the scene by midday.
 
One photo showed her in a Santa Maria gym that had been turned into a makeshift morgue, cradling the head of a victim's mother with both hands as the two women cried.
 
The hundred or so corpses created an overpowering, acrid smell but Rousseff stayed for about half an hour, consoling the families of the survivors one by one before flying to Brasilia. An aide said she was "emotionally devastated."
 
Those close to the president say the tragedy has hit her hard for two main reasons.
 
First, the high death toll, magnified by the fact it occurred in her adopted home state of Rio Grande do Sul. Second, because Rousseff has staked her presidency on battling the reckless, anything-goes legal and political culture often seen in Brazil, which many blame for the high number of deaths.
 
"It seems this tragedy could have been minimized if Brazil had better, more responsive institutions ... and that's what this president has consistently and vigorously pushed for, more than many other leaders," said Eliana Calmon, a federal judge who has gained nationwide fame for battling corruption.
 
Police investigations have pointed to a number of breakdowns that led to the disaster at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, a relatively wealthy university city of about 250,000 people.
 
The club's safety permit had expired last year, and some lawyers say city and fire department officials shouldn't have allowed it to continue to operate while it sought a renewal.
 
Other questions remain about whether the club was operating above capacity, and if it broke the law by only having one working exit at the moment a band started a pyrotechnics show that set the roof ablaze and filled the room with toxic smoke.
 
Many Brazilians doubt the Santa Maria disaster will lead Rousseff or other leaders to push for better safety or regulatory enforcement. They point to past incidents such as a 1972 fire in a Sao Paulo skyscraper that killed 16 people. Despite angry cries for reform, just two years later a fire at another skyscraper a few blocks away left 179 people dead.
 
Yet, in contrast to that era's military dictatorship, which was often indifferent to public opinion, Brazil now has one of Latin America's most mature democracies.
 
An economic boom last decade led to a historic expansion of the middle class, enabling Brazilians to focus less on core needs like hunger or unemployment and more on issues like better governance. They are demanding change from their leaders at the ballot box and through social media like Twitter, which is used by more people in Brazil than in any other country save the United States.
 
"Dilma, don't ever let this happen again! We need better politicians, better laws, a better state," a Facebook user named JoIao Oliveira said in an online forum on Thursday.
 
This Time May be Different
 
Rousseff's clear ability to respond to that outcry - on display long before the Santa Maria tragedy - has led some Brazilians to hope this time may, in fact, be different.
 
The daughter of a Bulgarian aristocrat who fled political oppression in Europe, Rousseff was a leftist guerrilla who fought for more representative government and greater social equality in the 1970s. Aides say she is genuinely disgusted when public institutions are inefficient or corrupt - one reason she has a reputation for berating her underlings.
 
From a more cynical perspective, Rousseff may also realize that her job depends on it. Despite an economy that has barely grown during the past two years, Rousseff's approval rating has stayed above 65 percent in large part because of her reputation for concern with good government, political analysts say.
 
Unlike her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, she has forced several ministers to resign when graft allegations have surfaced.
 
She championed a freedom of information bill that gave the public access to data and government workers' salaries and other spending for the first time, despite opposition from the military, the foreign ministry, and leaders in Congress.
 
When several of Lula's top aides went on trial and were then sentenced to prison by the Supreme Court last year on corruption charges, Rousseff stayed quiet in public even as members of her party begged her to speak out against the court's judges.
 
That focus on allowing institutions to do their job - and pushing for them to do it better - has characterized Rousseff's reaction so far to Santa Maria.
 
In the hours after the fire, several ministers urged Rousseff to champion a new federal law that would set more stringent safety standards for nightclubs nationwide, the presidential aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
 
However, Rousseff replied that existing laws and regulations were sufficient to prevent such tragedies. The problem lies with uneven enforcement that can result from insufficient financial resources, corruption, or a lack of political will, she said.
 
"She could have taken a more demagogic approach, and tried to portray this as a problem the federal government could solve with a single law," the aide said. "But she knew it was more complicated, and anyway, that's not her way of doing things."
 
Leaning on the Mayors
 
Instead, on Monday, barely 24 hours after receiving word of the fire, Rousseff pushed mayors at a meeting in Brasilia to more rigorously enforce safety codes at entertainment venues throughout the country. Many responded, launching a wave of raids and closures in cities nationwide.
 
Since then, Rousseff has worked to ensure that medical equipment is available for the more than 140 people who were injured in the fire, as well as those who could still get sick from delayed onset of pneumonia from the fumes.
 
She will also continue to press for cities to dedicate more resources to safety, and devote federal resources where appropriate, the aide said.
 
Even Rousseff's opponent in the 2010 presidential race agrees that it should fall to cities to better enforce existing legislation, not the federal government.
 
"I was scared to death of something similar happening when I was mayor," Jose Serra, who was mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city, from 2004 to 2006, told Reuters.
 
Calmon, the judge, says Rousseff's approach risks making her a "hostage" to politicians whose actions are beyond her control. But, as with other parts of her transparency drive, the "only lasting response" must lie with institutions, she said, adding that public prosecutors could help by more rigorously pursuing violators of safety codes.
 
Andre Cesar, a political consultant with Prospectiva consultancy in Brasilia, said Rousseff's quick response would likely spare her the popular anger being directed at other politicians, such as Santa Maria's mayor.
 
"She will either maintain her high approval rating or have a marginal gain," he said. "She will not lose." 

You May Like

Video Protests Continue in Ferguson, Spread to Other US Cities

Missouri officials say deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers helps curb second night of rampant arson and looting in Midwestern town More

Video Ebola, Crackdown on Illegals Hit Business in Guangzhou

Chinese city has largest community of Africans in Asia More

Video Legendary Lebanese Actress, Singer Sabah Dies at 87

Music and film diva, affectionately called 'Sabbouha' by millions of her fans, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London, Olympia in Paris, Sydney Opera House in Sydney More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Video Talks on New UN Climate Treaty Set Next Week in Peru

Representatives from 200 countries will discuss emissions reductions, setting stage for broader talks in 2015
More

Colombia's FARC Free Two Soldiers to Restart Talks

Troops taken captive in restive eastern department of Arauca in November 9 military operation freed with help of ICRC
More

FARC Leader Faults Colombia's Suspension of Peace Talks

Guerrilla chief Rodrigo Londono says government's action violates terms of agreement that brought rebels to negotiating table
More

Video Obama's Immigration Moves Debated on TV Talk Shows

President urges Republicans to pass legislation if they dislike executive orders he issued to address status of millions of illegals in US
More

Vazquez Is Favorite to Win Uruguay Presidential Vote

Leftist ruling party candidate buoyed by widespread affection for country's outgoing leader, strong economic growth
More

Brazil's Rousseff Struggles to Limit Petrobras Scandal's Damage

President expects bribery scandal at state-run oil company to deteriorate in coming months, aides say, with arrests possible for some political allies
More