Why Jair Bolsonaro is being deserted by military top brass

Brazilian president is battling for political survival amid surging Covid death toll

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Jair Bolsonaro
(Image credit: Mateus Bononi/Getty Images)

Jair Bolsonaro is not one for apologies. Confronted recently over Brazil’s soaring Covid death toll, the tough-talking president ordered the population to stop “fussing and whining”.

But Bolsonaro’s bravado is no match for what the BBC describes as the “biggest crisis of his presidency”, after the heads of his army, navy and air force quit this week as the country’s daily tally of coronavirus deaths hit record highs.

The “unprecedented resignation” of his defence chiefs follows “attempts by Bolsonaro to exert undue control over the military” even as his “popularity has plummeted” over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, the broadcaster reports.

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Fleeing the ship

A string of cabinet ministers have joined the military top brass in deserting Bolsonaro, in an exodus that “sent political shock waves” across the country, says The Washington Post.

The mass departure began when Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo stepped down on Monday. He was closely followed by Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, a reserve army general with 45 years of service, who was axed by Bolsonaro.

The door had barely shut behind them when the president announced a major cabinet reshuffle.

But his bid to restore order was derailed the following morning, when Brazil’s most senior military figures resigned in what appears to be a “backlash” to the ousting of the general, The Economist reports.

Army Commander Edson Pujol, Navy Commander Ilques Barbosa Junior and Air Force Commander Antonio Carlos Bermudez are thought to have resigned “in sympathy” with Azevedo, according to the paper.

However, as The New York Times (NYT), their departures also follow “profound disagreement over the role of the armed forces” in Bolsonaro’s government.

Azevedo e Silva’s resignation letter appeared to hint at the president’s efforts to politicise the military, with the general stating that he had preserved the armed forces as “institutions of the state” during his tenure in the Defence Ministry.

The role of the armed forces is “a sensitive issue in a country that was governed by repressive military governments for more than two decades following the 1964 coup”, says the paper.

Since the return of democracy in 1989, “Brazilian politicians have been understandably cautious about allowing the army a prominent role in public affairs”, The Economist adds.

But Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has handed a string of government positions to military figures. He was the first democratically elected president to “campaign on a promise of bringing generals into government”, the paper continues, a pledge that he “redeemed enthusiastically” by handing “several thousand military personnel were handed government positions”.

Bolsonaro’s newly appointed defence minister, former army general Walter Souza Braga Netto, appears to share his boss’s belief in giving greater political power to the military. After being handed the ministerial role, Braga Netto issued a statement ahead of the anniversary on Wednesday of the coup that said the date should be “celebrated”.

The new defence minister later backtracked, saying that “the most valuable asset of a nation is the preservation of democracy and the freedom of its people”.

All the same, his earlier remarks have “rattled critics of the government”, the NYT says.

Senator Katia Abreu, who heads the Brazilian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, warned yesterday that “the question that looms large, and must be answered, is: what was the order given to the generals that they did not feel they could follow?”

Covid crisis

Military figures have “increasingly distanced themselves” from Bolsonaro amid growing criticism of his handling of the Covid pandemic, says the BBC.

Brazil’s coronavirus death toll topped 66,500 in March alone, and is now second only that recorded in the US.

With “hospitals overloaded, a slow vaccination campaign and growing unemployment”, Bolsonaro is “under enormous pressure to make bold policy changes”, the NYT reports.

Some commentator are suggesting that the resignations this week are part of a “cynical effort to cut loose from a flailing government”, says The Economist. But whatever the plan behind the top-level departures, “there were no clear signs that the personnel changes represent a strategic shift for the government”, adds the NYT.

Gravediggers bury a Covid victime in Manaus, Brazil

Gravediggers bury a Covid victim in Manaus, Brazil
(Image credit: Andre Coelho/Getty Images)

The recent surge in Covid deaths is being attributed to the rise of a new variant discovered in the city of Manaus, in Brazil’s Amazon state.

The country’s vaccine programme has also been beset by delays, with little more than 7% of the 212 million-strong population having received at least one dose, according to latest Oxford University tracking.

A poll published in mid-March found that 43% of Brazilians blame Bolsonaro for the poor handling of the pandemic.

The Washington Post notes that the president has now “moderated his messaging”, wearing face masks in public and encouraging Brazilians to get vaccinated, after having previously suggesting that Covid jabs might turn people intocrocodilesand give womenbeards”.

Bolsonaro’s critics appear unconvinced by both his seeming change of heart and his recent political appointments, however.

Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, told the NYT that “there is no political coherence”.

“This is not a shift toward moderation, or an attempt to build bridges” in Congress, Santoro added.

With criticism of his leadership continuing to grow, Bolsonaro has cause to feel worries. Arthur Lira, the speaker of the lower house of Brazil’s congress, said last month that the Covid pandemic was “the greatest humanitarian disgrace that has befallen our people”, and that the “political remedies in Congress are well known and all of them are bitter”.

Lira’s intervention was widely interpreted as a warning that an impeachment effort could follow if Bolsonaro fails to get a grip on the duel political and health crises.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.