Two significant events took place on the weekend of 25th-27th January 2013.
The first was the EU-Latin American summit in Chile, attended by European Union member state representatives and representatives from most countries in the Americas, but not the two biggest economically; United States and Canada.
Geo-political commentators dressed up the summit as Latin America’s chance to gloat, as Europe continues to stare into a debt-filled abyss. Debt to GDP ratio in the European Union is more than double what it is in Latin America, while several Eurozone countries have have had to call in the IMF in recent years, and the majority have stagnant or recessionary economies.
Latin American economies, meanwhile, are growing at, on average, 4% per annum and debt ratios remain stable, while one country, Chile, is on the cusp of being tagged as a “developed” – rather than “developing” – country for the first time, while Brazil has become the world’s sixth biggest economy.
Argentine president Christina Fernandez de Kirchner recently said “26% unemployment in Spain should be a wake-up call for all of us […] Argentines, believe me, we are a fortunate country.” Such a statement, however ill-conceived it is, would have been unthinkable only a generation ago.
The other – and much more important – event was the nightclub tragedy in Brazil in which 231 people lost their lives. Never could an event serve as a wake-up call to responsibilities to truly be a “developed” country than this tragedy.
Through the deaths of those clubbers, Brazil – and wider Latin America for the that matter – must recognise that the fast development of their economies is only one reflection of the improvement of a nation – perhaps even more important is the valuing of human life and the livelihoods of its citizens.
The Kiss nightclub in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria had one available exit and had between 1,200-1,300 people inside at the time pyrotechnics were let off by members of the band playing.
The issue doesn’t seem to be that Brazil lacks robust rules by which nightclubs are governed, but a lack of enforcement. Every nightclub should have a fire extinguisher for every 1,500 feet and multiply emergency exits, according to the rules in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, but this clearly wasn’t the case at Kiss.
Scroll through the list of nightclub tragedies since the turn of the millenium and it is South America which dominates the list; 17 deaths in Quito in April 2008, 194 in Buenos Aires in December 2004, 47 in Caracas in December 2002, 28 in Lima in July 2002 to name the worst.
It should be stated that South America is extremely diverse, so the rules (or lack thereof) that are used in one nation aren’t applicable across the continent or indeed Latin America. This is perhaps best emphasised with South American countries’ ratings on levels of corruption. According to Transparency International, Argentina and Venezuela rank low -102nd and 165th respectively – while Uruguay and Chile creep into the world’s top 20.
But given the level of development on the continent in recent years, its appropriate to look at the continent as a whole.
Nightclub tragedies are not the only form of tragedy. 49 people lost their lives at Once train station in Buenos Aires in February 2012 after a faulty brake sent the train into a railway bumper. Again, lack of enforcing regulations, along with a creaking transport system, seemed to be the cause.
Brazil also has a more silent killer – one of the highest percentages of road deaths in the world. A 2009 study rated the country the ninth worst country for auto deaths with 40,000 dying per year – a rate of 24 per 100,000, which makes a person there three times more likely to die as a result of a traffic accident than in Sweden or Canada.
All of this is juxtaposed with the growing status of Brazil. Awarded the World Cup for 2014 and with Rio de Janeiro hosting the Olympics in 2016, the world is looking with growing awe at South America’s biggest country.
Although the country’s economy has grounded to a halt in recent years – only 1% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in 2012, down from 7.5% in 2010 – it still promises to be a major international player in the future, along with the fellow emerging powers known as the BRICS; Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
But the tragedy of San Martin emphasises such crass interpretations of development, whether they be by GDP per capita or by the Human Development Index (HDI) do not necessarily relate the quality of life in these countries.
While the European Union may be mired in debt and suffer high unemployment in its periphery, its citizens can still walk into a nightclub knowing they will almost certainly have an emergency exit to use in the case of a fire, can avail of public transport knowing a delay is the biggest of their concerns or use their country’s roads with a promise of relative safety.
Until Latin America can offer such assurances to its citizens, its development has a long way to run yet.