Will Brazil Cancel Its Carnival?

A lethal nightclub fire in the state of Rio Grande do Sul prompts a cycle of mourning and self-criticism familiar to Americans.

A storeroom at Grande Rio Samba School in Rio de Janeiro (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

Just as the United States emerged from the Newtown shooting with a sense that general public indifference to safety had played a role in the tragedy, so too Brazil, after a very different crisis this week.

The latest reports have at least 20 cities canceling their festivities for Carnaval as a result of a nightclub fire that left 235 people dead. Santa Maria, the town where the fire occurred, has entered a 30-day period of mourning.

In the very early hours of Sunday morning, flares lit during a band's stage show sparked a fire at the nightclub Kiss, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Members of the audience, many of whom were college students and intoxicated, rushed to the room's exit, only to find that at least one of them had been locked from the outside. Security guards apparently sealed it to prevent patrons from leaving without paying for their drinks.

Only when they realized there was a fire did they unlock the doors. By then, however, scores of young people had suffered lethal burns or succumbed to smoke inhalation. Of the around 500 people who were in the building that evening, more than two-thirds have died or are in critical condition in the burn wards of local hospitals.

The tragic mood that has settled over the country in the days since the fire isn't really compatible with the country's multi-day celebration of Carnaval, a pre-Lent holiday comparable to Mardi Gras. But while some cities have canceled the celebration, most will go through with it.

Brazil's carnival, which this year will take place February 8-12, is the largest and most famous in the world -- and, given that, a major boon for the country's economy. In Rio alone, close to a million tourists attended the 2012 celebration. In the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, hotels also charge radically increased rates, and for obvious reasons heavy drinking means many tourists are less averse to parting with money. Even if residents don't feel like participating, major cities can hardly afford to cancel their celebrations.

And yet the upcoming festivities seem even less appropriate given the tremendous amount of self-recrimination triggered by the fire. The country's biggest newspaper ran a scathing, self-searching op-ed about the country's fatalistic attitude towards disasters great and small. Wrote a New York Times reporter, assessing Brazil's frustration with itself:

In 2011, floods and landslides struck hillside communities precariously built in the state of Rio de Janeiro, leaving more than 600 people dead. In 1989, a boat of partygoers capsized near Rio, killing more than 50 people. And in 1961, a fire at a circus in the city of Niterói killed more than 500 people.

Then there are the smaller tragedies that barely register abroad but are all too common in Brazil. Bus crashes leave dozens of passengers dead. Office buildings collapse.

But the nightclub tragedy in particular appears to have resonated with Brazilians, who, in pessimistic moments, can cite a number of historical incidents where their country has failed to respect the value of human life. Even the country's central myth -- what the writer Stefan Zweig, expatriate in Brazil, called its "national epic" -- revolves around a massive, sanguinary, and arguably unnecessary military campaign.

Presented by

Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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