Brazil’s military chiefs all quit as Bolsonaro seeks their support

Rio de Janeiro: The leaders of all three branches of Brazil’s armed forces have jointly resigned following President Jair Bolsonaro’s replacement of the defence minister, causing widespread apprehension of a military shake-up to serve the President’s political interests.

The Defence Ministry reported the resignations in a statement released without giving reasons. Replacements were not named. But analysts expressed fears Bolsonaro was moving to assert greater control over the military.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro puts a face mask last week, a rare use of the mask for the leader who has mocked their use.Credit:Getty Images

“Since 1985, we haven’t had news of such clear intervention of the President with regard to the armed forces,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo. Brazil was under authoritarian military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

Bolsonaro, a conservative former army captain who has often praised the period of dictatorship, has relied heavily on current and former soldiers to staff key cabinet positions since taking office in January 2019, but Melo said the military itself has so far refrained from politics.

The announcement came after the heads of the army, navy and air force met with the new Defence Minister, General Walter Souza Braga Netto, on Tuesday.

The incoming minister, unlike his predecessor, also celebrated the dictatorship that killed and tortured thousands of Brazilians.

“The 1964 movement is part of Brazil’s historic trajectory. And as such the events of that March 31st must be understood and celebrated,” said Braga Netto, referring to the date of coup d’etat that established the dictatorship.

A retired army general who has a relationship with the three commanders as well as with Braga Netto told The Associated Press that “there was an embarrassing circumstance so they all resigned”. He agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name, expressing fear of retribution.

Bolsonaro on Monday carried out a shake-up of top Cabinet positions that was initially seen as a response to demands for change by lawmakers, diplomats and economists, particularly over his handling of the pandemic that has caused more than 300,000 deaths in Brazil.

That included the replacement of Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, who said in his resignation letter that he had “preserved the armed forces as state institutions,” a nod at his effort to keep generals out of politics.

Bolsonaro has often bristled at the checks and balances imposed by other branches of government and has attended protests targeting the Supreme Court and Congress.

He has also criticised the Supreme Court for upholding local governments’ rights to adopt pandemic restrictions that he adamantly opposes, arguing that the economic effects are worse than the disease itself.

His recent slide in popularity, and the sudden likelihood that he will face leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the 2022 presidential election, has analysts saying he is looking to the armed forces for support.

Since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, the armed forces have tried to keep a distance from partisan political quarrels.

Senator Katia Abreu, who heads the Senate’s foreign relations commission, said it would be “prudent” for the new defence minister to speak to “calm the nation down about the impossibility of a military intervention.”

“I have a conviction that we built a strong democracy. The armed forces are part of the Brazilian state and they have the confidence of all of us,” said Abreu, a right-leaning Bolsonaro critic.

Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst, told AP that it was the first time in living memory that all leaders of the armed forces had quit simultaneously.

“He wants people who will do whatever he wants and so it is extremely risky,” Traumann said. “He can put the army out to allow people to go to work. So the army would be in his hands, and not in the hands of the generals.”

Politicians and former allies across the country echoed the concerns about the strength of Brazilian democracy.

“Bolsonaro is increasingly similar to Chávez and Maduro,” said Rodrigo Maia, formerly congressional president, referring to past and current Venezuelan presidents. “An authoritarian will always be an authoritarian.”

Speaking to supporters outside the presidential palace on Wednesday (AEDT), Bolsonaro did not discuss the three commanders. When asked about the pandemic restrictions imposed by governors and mayors, the president said he respects the constitution, though he added: “But it has been some time that some authorities are not playing within the limits of the constitution.”

In other Cabinet changes, Bolsonaro replaced foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, who was accused by some of impeding the supply of vaccines by making comments seen as insulting to the Chinese and by not aggressively seeking sources.

Earlier this month, Bolsonaro also replaced his health minister, active-duty army General Eduardo Pazuello, the third health minister to leave office since the beginning of the pandemic. Pazuello’s tenure coincided with most of Brazil’s 317,000 COVID-19 deaths.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry said a new daily record of 3780 deaths related to COVID-19 had been registered in the previous 24 hours. The previous high of 3650 deaths was recorded on Friday.

AP, The Washington Post

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