Every Brazilian and Brazilianist that I know is lamenting the loss of Brazil’s National Museum in a terrible fire. The loss is incalculable -fossils of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, the records of extinct languages, a skull from perhaps the oldest person found in the Americas, a library of a half million books, and hundreds of thousands of specimens of every form of animal life from insect to birds. Henry Grabar has a thoughtful article in Slate, which describes the scale of the loss, and how it was almost inevitable: the Brazilian state had so starved the museum of funding that it had to launch a GoFundMe account after termites damaged a room containing an exceptional dinosaur skeleton. Academics mourn for all the lost information. Graduate students must replan their theses after they lost access to the specimens. But most of all, ordinary Brazilians lost a pearl of a museum in Rio de Janeiro, which was housed in the former Presidential palace. Rio de Janeiro has already lost vast amounts of colonial architecture, but none had as much historical significance as this. So many people I know are genuinely distraught, and can’t stop thinking about what this means. Within Brazil, it has come be seen as emblematic of the failures of the nation’s political leadership.
Emily Dreyfuss had an excellent article on the fire in Wired, which suggested that Brazil’s disaster illustrates why important holdings need to be digitized. This is certainly true. As a historian, I’ve long wired why the entire holdings of the United States’ National Archive haven’t been digitized. Why should researchers have to travel to Washington DC at great expense, and fill their days requesting boxes? Digitizing records could make them more secure, but would also make them accessible to the world, rather than only to those people with the funds to travel. People would still want to attend museums and archives, but this would mean that precious holdings could be preserved in some form, even if there are hurricanes, floods or fires. But that is not the most important lesson from this event.
Ultimately, the story of this disaster is one of the corruption and venality of the Brazilian state, which spent vast sums preparing for the World Cup and Olympics, and sparse funds on the basic needs of society. Political corruption has long plagued the Brazilian state, to the extent that it was one of the main justifications for the military’s intervention in politics, as I discussed in my book Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society, 1889-1954 (if you do click on this link, please ignore its ugly cover). Of course, once the military inserted itself into power it soon proved to be equally corrupt. Indeed, military corruption was an extricable part of military politics, which had long caused crises and protests within the institution, such as with the tenentes movement in the 1920s. The fact is that corruption has long plagued most parts of the Brazilian state, which the existing law had exacerbated.
Brazil needs profound changes to its legal system, such as an end to special prison conditions to classes of prisoners who have an education, the so-called “Prisão Especial.” It needs an effective auditing system for all government agencies; comprehensive anti-nepotism legislation; greater restrictions on politicians and government officials’ investments; detailed tax disclosure statements for all government officials and national leaders; increased funding for anti-corruption efforts; enhanced tax reporting; and measures to protect an independent judiciary. The last item is the one strength that Brazil has had, and it must be preserved at all costs. There is no substitute for such a deep structural reform. Changing individual leaders won’t solve the problem. A military coup will not end the crisis. Even electing new leaders won’t end this deeply-entrenched corruption, without a top-to-bottom overhaul of the priviledges, duties and requirements for all government officials and politicians. In particular, the current system of auditing government accounts at the state and municipal level is unsystematic and ineffective, while profound change are also needed in this area at the national level.
Of course, corruption alone did not cause this disaster. But over the last four years a police investigation called “Operation Carwash,” has outlined the immense sums lost to the government through corruption involved the national oil company, Petrobras; a construction company, Odebrecht; and Brazilian leaders of all ends of the political spectrum. This is only one scandal amongst many. Truly astronomical sums of money in Brazil have vanished or been mismanaged. A miniscule fraction of these funds would have done necessary repairs to the museum. According to Henry Grabar’s article the museum’s annual maintenance budget was $126,000 U.S. dollars. Throughout Brazil there is now a call for major reform.
Sadly, all of these changes will come to late to save Brazil’s National Museum, and its priceless holdings. But it might come in time to save Brazilian universities, research, healthcare and social net. As I write this the Brazilian courts have ruled that Lula, the front-runner in the Presidential election, is ineligible to run because he is currently in prison for corruption. Jair Bolsanaro -an extreme conservative with deep ties to the military- was just stabbed in the street. He survived but was badly injured. It’s unclear who will likely lead Brazil next year. What is clear, that only popular demands for specific changes to fight corruption can save the Brazilian state from itself. But what is needed is not only new leadership, but also a complete reworking of the Brazilian state, and the legislative framework that defines how its politicians act.