How the Santa Maria Fire Could Mark a Turning Point for Brazil

Many of the dead in the fire were young science and engineering students — just the kind of experts the country needs to advance into the ranks of the first world. Has the time come for Brazil to make sure its legal system works to prevent big and small abuses that may hamper its overall economic future?

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Felipe Dana / AP

A man stands around coffins containing the remains of victims after the bodies were identified at a gymnasium in Santa Maria, Brazil, on Jan. 27, 2013

On Sunday night, Brazilian websites began posting the names, photos and bios of the more than 230 victims of that morning’s horrific nightclub fire in the southern city of Santa Maria. What stands out is that half of them were college students from the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria’s agronomy department. Among them: André Cadore Bosser, a forestry-engineering student; Benhur Retzlaff Rodrigues, a civil-engineering student; Susiele Cassol, just 19, a food-engineering student. Beautiful, bright kids. And, as it turns out, kids Brazil particularly needed.

(PHOTOS: Chaos Outside Brazil Nightclub Fire That Killed More than 200)

Any death in a senseless catastrophe like this is heartbreaking, and a college student’s life is certainly no more valuable than anyone else’s. But the mass demise of science scholars carries a potent symbolism for Brazil — especially for President Dilma Rousseff, who through her Science Without Borders program has made it a crusade to produce tens of thousands more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates as the South American giant reaches for a developed future that seems so close but in many ways remains so far. Rousseff said perhaps more than she knew when she arrived on the coffin-clogged streets of Santa Maria on Sunday and called the carnage in front of her “a tragedy for all of us” in Brazil. It is, in fact, a tragedy that may mark a turning point for the nation.

And, despite its searing pain, a potentially useful turning point. For the past decade, Brazil has celebrated a remarkable boom that made it the world’s sixth largest economy. It added almost 40 million people to the middle class — creating almost 20 millionaires a week at one point. But that carnaval has stalled: Brazil saw just 1% economic growth last year, and it has to get a lot more serious about structural reforms, from less corruption and red tape to more infrastructure and high tech, if it’s going to take its next step to the First World — and if it wants to be a successful host of next year’s soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

(VIDEO: Raw Footage of Chaotic Emergency Response to Brazil Nightclub Fire)

Santa Maria, in that regard, could turn out to be a wake-up call. That’s not so much because the fire will raise complaints about lax Third-World practices — lest we forget, the U.S. suffered a similar nightclub blaze 10 years ago in Rhode Island that killed 100 — but rather because it comes at a moment when Brazil is already feeling a little less samba and a little more sober as it assesses where it is and where it’s going. In a more immediate sense, yes, that should include quotidian concerns like nightclub regulation. Brazil has experienced a massive expansion in credit-card ownership, which ought to make customer transactions at clubs like Kiss, the site of the Santa Maria inferno, an easier and more reliable process. Yet too many club owners in developing countries like Brazil continue the archaic practice of blocking the exits late at night to make sure patrons don’t skip out on their tabs. Survivors allege that security guards were indeed obstructing the only accessible door at the illegally overcrowded Kiss as people tried to flee the fire and their bodies began piling up.

But that criminal image is also bound to make Brazil’s 200 million people more introspective in a broader sense. Authorities have begun to make arrests in Santa Maria, including those of club owners and members of the band that allegedly shot flares during its stage act and started the fire (which also injured some 200 people). Still, there are few institutions that Brazilians doubt more — and few institutions that do more, they say, to inhibit the nation’s modernization — than their legal system, which even the chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice recently said seems set up to make sure powerful people never see prison when they break the law.

(MORE: Tale of Two Corruptos: Brazil and Mexico on Different Transparency Paths)

In fact, Brazil just finished the largest and most high-profile corruption trial in its history, and 25 people — including José Dirceu, the chief of staff of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — were convicted. Many Brazilians are skeptical that prison sentences for figures like Dirceu will ever be carried out, largely because it’s never happened before in Brazil. But if Brazil wants to be the kind of country where small-time nightclub club owners in Santa Maria fear the law, it’s got to be the kind of country where big-time political brokers in Brasília fear the law.

And if it wants to become a developed economy, it also needs tens of thousands more scientists and engineers. The good news is that Rousseff, herself an economist, looks serious about battling corruption and promoting technology. The pictures of bright young Brazilian science students dying in feloniously negligent circumstances may move Brazilians to take those matters more seriously alongside her. If so, then some of Brazil’s positive future may rise out of the ashes of Santa Maria.

MORE: Brazil’s Largest Corruption Trial Yields Its Most Important Guilty Verdict