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.

Like the U.S., Brazil has a strong frontier tradition, one that looms large in the country's imagination. In the interior of the country, from 1893 to 1897, a long conflict unfolded that pitted a small settlement of wiry, wily backwoodsmen against Brazil's federal army. (The army won, but just barely.) The campaign forever lodged in the public consciousness in 1902, when a reporter who traveled with the army published a long, beautifully written, and compassionate account of the entire conflict, from the establishment of the settlement to the death and capture of the very last settlers.

The tale illustrates the ingenuity of Brazilian culture, and gives a picture of some of the different cultural strains that make today's Brazilians Brazilian. But it closes on a dark note.

Did so many people need to die? Hardly, thought the chronicler, Euclides da Cunha. He ends his book by mourning the loss of life in the conflict, and criticizing the use of excessive military force. It's a refrain that echoes through Brazilian history, from the bounty-hunting of colonial Brazil to the loss of life in today's drug trade.

Compare that to the common complaint about our gun-loving culture after Newtown -- for an American, it's hard not to sympathize. And it's jarring how familiar these words from a Brazilian sociologist sound. In an editorial cited in the Times, he wrote:

We already knew the tragedy of Santa Maria would happen. We already knew we would mourn hundreds of dead, be shocked in front of our TV sets, listening to the radio, looking for more information on Internet social networks. We already knew we'd spend days talking, choked up, about the tragedy, commenting, analyzing, opining. ...

We already knew no one would think of the consequences, collectively or individually. We already knew no one would examine seriously the risks involved. We already knew that everyone would make foolish decisions, assume unacceptable risks, stop looking around them and at each other. [My translation from Portuguese]

Out of a sense of mourning, the governor of the Federal District -- the state where Brasília is located -- canceled a celebration marking 500 days until the World Cup. The country has been beating back assertions that the fire indicates a systemic lack of preparedness on its part for the competition, which will be held there in 2014. (One official called the idea "colonial.")

But the people of Brazil can't cancel their pre-Lent celebrations. Too many visitors are coming, and their money is too important; they're expecting a spectacle, and they've already paid. Samba schools across the country have spent the past 9 or 10 months (and millions of dollars) preparing costumes and dances.

The Brazilians -- who are stereotyped, and even stereotype themselves, as fun and carefree -- seem to feel sick at heart. But even if they want to stop the show for a while, they can't now.