Jair Bolsonaro’s crisis-stricken administration has been rocked by the sudden sacking of Brazil’s defence minister and the subsequent resignation of the heads of all three branches of the armed forces.
The commanders of the Brazilian army, navy and air force – Gen Edson Leal Pujol, Adm Ilques Barbosa and Lt-Brig Antônio Carlos Bermudez – met with the president’s new minister on Tuesday morning and reportedly tendered their resignations during a dramatic and heated encounter. On Tuesday afternoon the defence ministry confirmed all three would be replaced, a political earthquake that rattled a country already grappling with one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
The Folha de São Paulo newspaper said that never before in Brazilian history had the heads of all three branches of the military resigned out of disagreement with a president.
The historic upheaval, which left many Brazilians on edge, came after Brazil’s far-right president fired defence minister Gen Fernando Azevedo e Silva on Monday during what one media report called a chilly three-minute encounter. “I need your job,” Bolsonaro told the General, a longstanding friend, according to the Estado de São Paulo newspaper.
Eliane Cantanhêde, a prominent journalist for that broadsheet in the capital Brasília, claimed Gen Azevedo e Silva had left government after making it clear to the president – a former army captain who is notorious for his praise of authoritarians – that the armed forces owed loyalty to the constitution and were not Bolsonaro’s personal force.
Bolsonaro had reportedly been demanding the removal of Gen Pujol, who, to the president’s apparent consternation, has publicly rejected the politicization of Brazil’s military and pushed for tougher restrictions against Covid, which has killed more than 314,000 Brazilians. Earlier this month Bolsonaro – whose handling of the pandemic and opposition to lockdown have been internationally condemned – sparked outrage by issuing a veiled threat to declare a “state of siege”.
Cantanhêde said: “General Fernando’s exit shows us that there is a significant wing of the armed forces – in the army, navy and air force – who do not accept authoritarianism, coups and the violation of the constitution. Bolsonaro wants everyone to be his vassal and to do whatever he commands … and many people within [the armed forces] are now saying: ‘No, Sir, actually we won’t.’
“This is extremely important because it shows there is resistance in the armed forces to any kind of coup-mongering project … [and] Bolsonaro’s authoritarian project,” Cantanhêde claimed.
Thomas Traumann, a Rio-based political observer and former social communication minister, described the shock developments – which came during a sweeping cabinet reshuffle – as “really historic”. The last time he could remember an army chief being removed in such unusual circumstances was in 1977 when the hardline general Sílvio Frota was sacked after trying to unseat Brazil’s then dictator Ernesto Geisel, one of the military rulers who governed the South American country between 1964 and 1985.
Traumann said: “Changing the army commander in a country like Brazil – and during an administration like Bolsonaro’s – isn’t business as usual. This is genuinely serious stuff because you are literally putting one of Bolsonaro’s people in charge of the army in an administration that threatens [military] interventions – even if we don’t know how much of that is for real and how much just to fire up his political base.”
“So far this has just been rhetoric. But if you change the commander of the army that’s one step closer to making it a reality,” Traumann added. “I know several generals and brigadiers and they are very alarmed.”
Bolsonaro, a career politician who swept to power in October on a fake-news-fuelled wave of anti-establishment rage, is a notorious admirer of Latin American autocrats and has publicly praised the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as well as the generals who ruled Brazil when he was a paratrooper in the late 1970s. He has repeatedly named his favourite book as a tome by Col Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a dictatorship-era torturer accused of overseeing torture sessions during which victims were electrocuted and thrashed with canes. During a series of anti-democratic protests last year Brazil’s democratically-elected leader egged on flag-waving radicals demanding a return to military rule. His politician son, Eduardo, who is Steve Bannon’s representative in South America, last year warned Brazil faced an “institutional rupture”.
Traumann said he saw no immediate chance of a break with democracy or coup attempt because of this week’s turbulence but feared Bolsonaro – who is facing growing political pressure over his catastrophic Covid response – was seeking to install more pliable military leaders in case his bid to secure a second presidential term in 2022 failed.
“In my head at least, the biggest institutional risk is having a 6 January,” Traumann said, in reference to the storming of the US Capitol by mobs who supported Bolsonaro’s political idol Donald Trump.
“If Bolsonaro loses the election and challenges the result, how are the armed forces going to respond? For me this is the key question.”
Bolsonaro’s chances of re-election suffered a major blow this month after his nemesis, the former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was freed up to challenge him after the surprise decision to quash the corruption convictions against him. “Lula’s return to politics changes everything,” said his former foreign minister, Celso Amorim. Many now expect Lula to run against Bolsonaro in 2022.
“We’re living between these two worlds. A certain light at the end of the tunnel from the political point of view and utter darkness from the health point of view, from the point of view of life,” Amorim said.
Cantanhêde said Bolsonaro’s high-risk gambit to shore up military support – which risks angering key figures within the armed forces – spoke to an increasingly desperate president who was haemorrhaging support, including among Brazil’s economic elite, thanks to his “horrific” reaction to Covid. Polls suggest Bolsonaro still enjoys the support of about 30% of the population but is considered the chief culprit for Brazil’s Covid calamity by 43% of citizens and rejected by almost half the country. “He is weak,” Cantanhêde claimed. “He is cornered.”