BRASILIA: President Jair Bolsonaro will replace all three commanders of Brazil’s armed forces, his government said on Tuesday (Mar 30), the latest upheaval in Brasilia as the far-right leader braces against mounting criticism over an explosion of COVID-19 deaths.
The exit of the army, navy and air force chiefs came a day after Bolsonaro overhauled his cabinet, replacing the foreign, defence and justice ministers as well as his chief of staff, attorney general and government secretary.
Last week, he also installed his fourth health minister of the pandemic.
The turmoil comes as the government struggles to control a deadly surge of COVID-19 in Brazil, where the average daily death toll has nearly quadrupled this year to a worldwide high of more than 2,600 – pushing many hospitals to the brink of collapse.
Bolsonaro, who comes up for re-election in October 2022, faces sliding popularity and growing pressure over his handling of the pandemic, including from key allies in Congress and the business world.
His attacks on lockdowns, face masks and vaccines have become fodder for critics as COVID-19 has claimed nearly 314,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.
The defence ministry did not give a reason for the departure of Army General Edson Pujol, Navy Admiral Ilques Barbosa and Air Force Lieutenant-Brigadier Antonio Carlos Bermudes.
Some Brazilian media reported the trio had resigned in protest at Bolsonaro’s surprise decision to replace defence minister Fernando Azevedo.
“For the first time in history, the commanders of all three branches of the armed forces presented their joint resignation in disagreement with the president,” said newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
‘POSSIBLE POLITICAL CRISIS’
Azevedo himself resigned because he was “uncomfortable with Bolsonaro’s use of the military for political ends,” journalist Merval Pereira wrote in newspaper Globo.
There were signs the armed forces commanders were uncomfortable, too, particularly Pujol.
He said last November the military “doesn’t want to get involved in politics.”
The army chief had also called fighting COVID-19 “our generation’s most important mission” and once shunned Bolsonaro’s outstretched hand at an official ceremony, offering a socially distanced elbow bump instead.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain, frequently boasts of having the military’s backing, and has packed his government with officers.
He is openly nostalgic for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, despite its rights violations, including the kidnapping and torture of dissidents.
The armed forces have since carefully rebuilt an apolitical image of national service.
But Bolsonaro’s hardline base has put that to the test with calls to reinstall military rule with him at the top – talk the president is accused of fanning.
There was no official word on the reasons for Azevedo’s exit, but he said in a parting statement he was proud to have “preserved the armed forces as an institution of the state.”
Vice President Hamilton Mourao, an army general, said there was “zero” risk of an anti-democratic intervention by the military against Congress or the courts.
“You can put whomever you like (as commanders), there will never be an institutional rupture. The armed forces will be on the side of legality, always,” he said.
Political analyst Oliver Stuenkel said the turmoil in Brasilia was part of pre-election jockeying that has seen a fragile Bolsonaro strike a new alliance with a coalition of centrist parties.
The president looks to be facing a tough election battle in 2022, particularly after a Supreme Court justice earlier this month overturned former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s corruption convictions, clearing the way for him to mount a potential run against Bolsonaro.
Polls place the popular but controversial leftist leader (2003-2010) neck and neck with Bolsonaro, at a time when the coalition that brought the president to power in January 2019 is badly frayed.
“The latest changes have a twin purpose: first, because (Bolsonaro) needs to free up cabinet posts for his new centrist allies, and second, because he is preparing for a possible political crisis and wants to surround himself with extremely loyal people, especially in the armed forces,” Stuenkel said.