SAO PAULO (Reuters) - For a gruff, no-nonsense technocrat known for intimidating even her closest aides, the tears rolling down President Dilma Rousseff’s face were especially striking.
After receiving a phone call at 7 a.m. on Sunday notifying her of a nightclub fire that killed 235 people in southern Brazil, Rousseff cut short a visit to Chile and was on the scene by midday.
One photo showed her in a Santa Maria gym that had been turned into a makeshift morgue, cradling the head of a victim’s mother with both hands as the two women cried.
The hundred or so corpses created an overpowering, acrid smell but Rousseff stayed for about half an hour, consoling the families of the survivors one by one before flying to Brasilia. An aide said she was “emotionally devastated.”
Those close to the president say the tragedy has hit her hard for two main reasons.
First, the high death toll, magnified by the fact it occurred in her adopted home state of Rio Grande do Sul. Second, because Rousseff has staked her presidency on battling the reckless, anything-goes legal and political culture often seen in Brazil, which many blame for the high number of deaths.
“It seems this tragedy could have been minimized if Brazil had better, more responsive institutions ... and that’s what this president has consistently and vigorously pushed for, more than many other leaders,” said Eliana Calmon, a federal judge who has gained nationwide fame for battling corruption.
Police investigations have pointed to a number of breakdowns that led to the disaster at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, a relatively wealthy university city of about 250,000 people.
The club’s safety permit had expired last year, and some lawyers say city and fire department officials shouldn’t have allowed it to continue to operate while it sought a renewal.
Other questions remain about whether the club was operating above capacity, and if it broke the law by only having one working exit at the moment a band started a pyrotechnics show that set the roof ablaze and filled the room with toxic smoke.
Many Brazilians doubt the Santa Maria disaster will lead Rousseff or other leaders to push for better safety or regulatory enforcement. They point to past incidents such as a 1972 fire in a Sao Paulo skyscraper that killed 16 people. Despite angry cries for reform, just two years later a fire at another skyscraper a few blocks away left 179 people dead.
Yet, in contrast to that era’s military dictatorship, which was often indifferent to public opinion, Brazil now has one of Latin America’s most mature democracies.
An economic boom last decade led to a historic expansion of the middle class, enabling Brazilians to focus less on core needs like hunger or unemployment and more on issues like better governance. They are demanding change from their leaders at the ballot box and through social media like Twitter, which is used by more people in Brazil than in any other country save the United States.
“Dilma, don’t ever let this happen again! We need better politicians, better laws, a better state,” a Facebook user named João Oliveira said in an online forum on Thursday.
Rousseff’s clear ability to respond to that outcry - on display long before the Santa Maria tragedy - has led some Brazilians to hope this time may, in fact, be different.
The daughter of a Bulgarian aristocrat who fled political oppression in Europe, Rousseff was a leftist guerrilla who fought for more representative government and greater social equality in the 1970s. Aides say she is genuinely disgusted when public institutions are inefficient or corrupt - one reason she has a reputation for berating her underlings.
From a more cynical perspective, Rousseff may also realize that her job depends on it. Despite an economy that has barely grown during the past two years, Rousseff’s approval rating has stayed above 65 percent in large part because of her reputation for concern with good government, political analysts say.
Unlike her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, she has forced several ministers to resign when graft allegations have surfaced.
She championed a freedom of information bill that gave the public access to data and government workers’ salaries and other spending for the first time, despite opposition from the military, the foreign ministry, and leaders in Congress.
When several of Lula’s top aides went on trial and were then sentenced to prison by the Supreme Court last year on corruption charges, Rousseff stayed quiet in public even as members of her party begged her to speak out against the court’s judges.
That focus on allowing institutions to do their job - and pushing for them to do it better - has characterized Rousseff’s reaction so far to Santa Maria.
In the hours after the fire, several ministers urged Rousseff to champion a new federal law that would set more stringent safety standards for nightclubs nationwide, the presidential aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
However, Rousseff replied that existing laws and regulations were sufficient to prevent such tragedies. The problem lies with uneven enforcement that can result from insufficient financial resources, corruption, or a lack of political will, she said.
“She could have taken a more demagogic approach, and tried to portray this as a problem the federal government could solve with a single law,” the aide said. “But she knew it was more complicated, and anyway, that’s not her way of doing things.”
Instead, on Monday, barely 24 hours after receiving word of the fire, Rousseff pushed mayors at a meeting in Brasilia to more rigorously enforce safety codes at entertainment venues throughout the country. Many responded, launching a wave of raids and closures in cities nationwide.
Since then, Rousseff has worked to ensure that medical equipment is available for the more than 140 people who were injured in the fire, as well as those who could still get sick from delayed onset of pneumonia from the fumes.
She will also continue to press for cities to dedicate more resources to safety, and devote federal resources where appropriate, the aide said.
Even Rousseff’s opponent in the 2010 presidential race agrees that it should fall to cities to better enforce existing legislation, not the federal government.
“I was scared to death of something similar happening when I was mayor,” Jose Serra, who was mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, from 2004 to 2006, told Reuters.
Calmon, the judge, says Rousseff’s approach risks making her a “hostage” to politicians whose actions are beyond her control. But, as with other parts of her transparency drive, the “only lasting response” must lie with institutions, she said, adding that public prosecutors could help by more rigorously pursuing violators of safety codes.
Andre Cesar, a political consultant with Prospectiva consultancy in Brasilia, said Rousseff’s quick response would likely spare her the popular anger being directed at other politicians, such as Santa Maria’s mayor.
“She will either maintain her high approval rating or have a marginal gain,” he said. “She will not lose.”
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Ana Flor in Santa Maria; Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Brian Winter