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Brazilian Critics Blame Government Austerity for National Museum Fire

Flames engulf the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. (Leo Correa / AP)

While Brazilians mourn the devastating loss after the 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janiero burned on Sunday evening in a giant inferno, critics of the ruling right-wing government lashed out for doing too little to guard the building from a disaster thay say could have been prevented if warnings had been heded and the necessary steps taken to upgrade the facility and protect its millions of scientific and historic artifacts.

“It is an unbearable catastrophe. It is 200 years of this country’s heritage. It is 200 years of memory. It is 200 years of science. It is 200 years of culture, of education,” Luiz Duarte, a vice-director of the museum, told the country’s TV Globo.

Duarte was among those who blamed government officials for failing to support the museum and letting it fall into disrepair. “For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” he said. “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”

While Brazil’s President Michael Temer—who the Guardian reports “has presided over cuts to science and education as part of a wider austerity drive” since taking office in a political “cold coup” by right-wing forces in 2016—called the losses “incalculable,” it is precisely those cuts, say critics, which are ultimately to blame for the fire. According to the BBC:

There had been complaints about the dilapidated state of the museum. “We never had adequate support,” its deputy director said after the fire.

Presidential candidate Marina Silva also criticised lack of investment.

“Given the financial straits of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and all the other public universities the last three years, this was a tragedy that could be seen coming,” Ms Silva, a left-wing politician standing in next month’s election, tweeted.

The Guardian adds:

At the scene, several indigenous people gathered and criticised the fact that the museum containing their most precious artefacts has burned down seemingly because there was no money for maintenance of hydrants, yet the city had recently managed to find a huge budget to build a brand new museum of tomorrow. A crowd of several dozen people outside the gates, several of whom were clearly distraught. Others blamed the government’s austerity policies and corruption.

Rio’s fire chief Colonel Roberto Robaday said the firefighters did not have enough water at first because two hydrants were dry. “The two nearest hydrants had no supplies,” he said. Water trucks were brought in and water used from a nearby lake. “This is an old building,” he said, “with a lot of flammable material, lots of wood and the documents and the archive itself.”

Some Brazilians saw the fire as a metaphor for their country’s traumas as it battles terrifying levels of violent crime and the effects of a recession that has left more than 12 million people unemployed.

“The tragedy this Sunday is a sort of national suicide. A crime against our past and future generations,” Bernard Mello Franco, one of Brazil’s best-known columnists, wrote on the O Globo newspaper site.

“This isn’t just Brazilian history that’s gone up in flames,” said Katy Watson, a BBC South America correspondent, from Rio. “Many see this as a metaphor for the city – and the country as a whole.”

Jon Queally / Common Dreams

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