Brazil’s Tragic Museum Fire: Negligence, Arson or Misfortune?

On the evening of 2 September, a raging inferno broke out at the National Museum of Brazil. While most major national archives, museums and libraries throughout the world are equipped with modern CO2 fire extinguishers capable of quickly putting out localised or even large fires without causing damage to the art pieces, book etc., for what was arguably the most storied grand museum in Latin America, nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, fire spread quickly throughout the large building complex that prior to 1892 housed Brazil’s royal family.

With the interior of the building totally gutted while engineers fear a collapse of the external structure may occur at any moment, museum curators have already stated that they fear 90% of the museums treasures which date from the ancient to modern eras are likely totally destroyed. But while lovers of culture, art and history throughout the world mourn the tragic fire, multiple fingers are already being pointed in respect of assigning blame for what could have been a preventable incident.

Decades of financial and physical neglect had reportedly left the building vulnerable and in a state of visibly extreme disrepair. Those familiar with the  museum state that wires were dangling against walls while open pipes leaked through the corridors. According to the living heir to Brazil’s former royal family, Luiz Philippe de Orléans e Bragança:

“Those saying that the museum will be rebuilt are not telling the truth. The building could be rebuilt, but the collection will never again be rebuilt. Two hundred years, workers, researchers, professors that dedicated in body and soul… the work of their life burned due to the negligence of the Brazilian state”.

Objectively, this above statement appears to be correct as it is difficult to think of such a comparable incident occurring at a museum of such substantial cultural heritage outside of a war zone. While the Daesh terror group famously destroyed and looted the national museums of Iraq, such incidents cannot be compared to that in a country during peacetime.

But this is where matters become increasingly sinister upon closer inspection. While Brazil is technically at peace, politically the country is on the verge of a stealth power coup by existing political elites who have successfully conspired to prevent the only genuinely popular Presidential candidate from participating in next month’s election.

While it is clear that decades of neglect by various civic authorities to maintain the museum played a part in the inferno, logically it is also self-evident that a building in a poor state of repair represents an easy target from the perspective of an arsonist. This is the case because a building already in poor repair is easier to physically sabotage than one with functional modern fire extinguishing systems, while the fact that it was well known that the Museum was falling apart has the effect of preventing many from asking what should be an obvious question: was it arson?

According to Culture Minister Sergio Leitao, the most likely causes of the fire were either an electrical fault or what is being described as “a homemade paper hot-air balloon landing on the roof”. While an electrical fault could be either due to negligent maintenance or a freak accident, the theory of a paper hot-air balloon landing on and subsequently setting fire to the Museum is a far more provocative claim.

While the very suggestion that a home made hot air balloon could so easily set fire to such an important building raises multiple questions about the competence of Museum management, this theory also indicates that all it would have taken for an arsonist to start the fire was to be in the region of the Museum and pretend to be innocently playing with home made hot air balloons.

In 1933, Germany’s parliament, The Reichstag went up in flames although less of the German building was destroyed vis-a-vis the National Museum of Brazil. The ruling plurality National Socialist (aka NAZI) party of the day blamed the incident on anti-government arsonists and subsequently used the fire to consolidate power and silence opposition and minority groups. It later emerged that the fire was a false flag and that Hitler’s supporters had in fact started the inferno for the very purpose of blaming it on the opposition.

Brazil’s government has already engaged in disgraceful behaviour which effectively kills off democracy in the largest of all Latin American nations.  Like many of its neighbours, there have been growing pains and setbacks in Brazil’s democratic institutions for decades but the blatant and open conspiracy designed to prevent Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) from stepping back into the Presidency represents a watershed moment in the decline and fall of Brazil’s weakened democratic institutions. It was Lula’s intention to stand in next month’s Presidential elections in spite of being imprisoned for corruption charges that are seen as purely politically driven by millions of Brazilians.

While the authorities had already used the long arm of the stage to prevent Lula from having access to the public in order to conduct a normal campaign, now Brazil’s top electoral court has formally prohibited Lula from participating in the election. Lula’s popularity and clear front-runner status meant that had he been allowed to participate in the election, he would have won with comparative ease. While Lula attempts to appeal the decision his Workers Party may rally around Fernando Haddad, a strong supporter and former colleague of Lula.

However, the election which under normal circumstances would have been a shoe-in for Lula is now open to competition by Jair Bolsonaro and Marina Silva. Bolsonaro tends to present himself as an upstart who will ride a right wing populist wave to power. But many believe that Bolsonaro is little more than the public face of a stealth military coup that would fundamentally run the country under the pro-armed forces Bolsonaro. Also in the competition is long time political chameleon Marina Silva who tends to have the backing of the liberal elite in Washington.

In either case, the biggest man in contemporary Brazilian politics looks to be out of the race barring a last minute intervention from Supreme Court judges. Ever since the controversial impeachment of Lula’s right hand woman Dilma Rousseff in 2016, Brazil has been sleepwalking into a deep state dictatorship wherein the guises of trappings of democracy are allowed to be conducted by where the real power rests in an infamously corrupted bureaucracy, politicised judges and if top generals get their way, the military also.

In many respects an election without Lula is little more than a competition between the pro-military candidate Bolsonaro and the pro-bureaucracy candidate Marina Silva while a would-be replacement for Lula would face an uphill battle due to not having any official visibility in the campaign until the proverbial 11th hour.

Not only is Lula’s status as a political prisoner bad for Brazil’s internal democracy but it is also bad for the country’s economic interactivity with its Asian partners. While Lule was Brazil’s President when the country formed the BRICS partnership with Russia, India, China and later South Africa, neither Bolsonaro nor Marina Silva have particularly strong credentials when it comes to embracing geo-economic multipolarity in order to diversify and help expand Brazil’s economy.

In this sense, if the fire’s cause can be determined as arson, the government could further crack down on large public gatherings and demonstrations which thus far have been the most powerful tool of Lula’s supporters to agitate for the release of the man who under normal circumstances would be elected President in October.

Of course this is just a theory, but given the reckless behaviour of an effective oligarchic Brazilian regime against former President Lula and his supporters, it would be negligent to not openly question whether the tragic fire at the National Museum of Brazil is part of a sinister and cynical ploy to not only drive Lula from the ballot paper but to drive his supporters off the streets.

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