The resignation of Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, announced on Monday, became an anecdote in the deep crisis of Jair Bolsonaro’s government. On the other hand, the departure of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva acquired a central role. To make matters worse for the Brazilian president, his resignation was followed by the abrupt departure of the commanders-in-chief of the Army, Navy and Aeronautics, which took place on Tuesday afternoon. What appeared to be just a “renewal” of the ministerial cabinet pushed by the president, showed a very different face. He revealed the differences between different sectors of the Armed Forces, and of these with the head of state.
But this unprecedented event in Brazilian history does not imply a total rupture of the military with the president. Its main ministers: Generals Walter Braga Netto, brand new Minister of Defense; Luiz Eduardo Ramos, Minister-Chief of the Civil House and Augusto Heleno, of Institutional Security, continue firm in the most exclusive presidential environment. Similarly, no one spoke of changing the 6,000 uniformed men who occupy from high to intermediate and low positions in the government.
Braga Netto held a prolonged meeting with former minister Azevedo e Silva and the three former chiefs of the forces on Tuesday at noon. Edson Pujol, who until yesterday commanded the Army, participated; Ilques Barbosa, the admiral who led the Navy and Brigadier General Antonio Carlos Moretti. The trio, now replaced, had been found the day before at night “in a secret place,” as confirmed by official sources.
In that evening appointment they swore solidarity between them and decided to present a joint resignation, to show in a forceful way their “displeasure” for the case of General Azevedo that Bolsonaro had just fired. But that strategy did not work: the president anticipated them and asked Braga Netto to remove the commanders. Bolsonaro officials indicated that Azevedo’s displacement occurred because this military man “never fully aligned himself with the president.”
This is what Rafael Cortez, doctor in political science and partner of the consulting firm Tendencies, warned yesterday. For this political scientist “everything indicates that the ministerial reform was a response designed by the president to navigate in turbulent seas.” In his opinion, “the changes” reflect the presidential need to protect himself from the risks that he envisions for his mandate, as well as his bid for re-election in 2022. It is a question, he explains, “of maintaining power in the face of an institutional crisis, as well as minimizing the perverse reality of the pandemic. “
The health collapse, due to the new wave of COVID, a very fragile economic scenario, inflation and conflicts with the governors of the Brazilian states, erupted in 2021 with such force that they have deteriorated Bolsonaro’s own political base. The president no longer has the floor of a support of 30% that he showed last year. Added to this is the implementation of a subsidy to the most vulnerable sectors from April that represents an average of 44 dollars (250 reais), and that is not even close to half of the benefit that had been granted in the second semester of last year.
In this environment, fed back by terrible figures from the pandemic, for an important sector of the military the need to detach from the presidential figure is imposed to prevent the Armed Forces from suffering the same wear and tear. COVID-19 continues to wreak dramatic havoc. This week Brazil has once again broken the record for daily deaths from the pandemic, above 3,500 deaths.
In this not auspicious context, the Brazilian media coincide in highlighting a point in the account of the current political crisis: President Bolsonaro’s resentment against what he considers to be a “devaluation” of his figure and his role. The big newspapers cite an official “source” who would have indicated the reason for the presidential rejection of Generals Azevedo and Pujol. “He felt like he was still treated like a captain.” That was the degree that the head of state reached when he left the Army, after having promoted a strike among young officers. After that stage, Bolsonaro entered the political career, first as a councilor and then, in 1991, as a federal deputy.
What is being affirmed now is that the former captain is not willing to admit to his government military personnel who do not fully agree with his vision. And he will demand that the new cadres of the Armed Forces recognize him as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Brazil, as established in the country’s Constitution. Everything indicates that the now former head of the Army, Pujol, collided with Bolsonaro last year when he did not subscribe to the president’s “denialist” strategy against COVID.
Even more compromised was the position of this general, until this week at the head of the Army, when he refused to pressure the Supreme Court to annul the recognition of the political rights of former president Lula da Silva. In this neutrality, he also agreed with the former Defense Minister. Furthermore, Pujol was explicit about his position: “We must not allow politics to enter the barracks.” The figure of Lula has taken shape again this month as the adversary with enough popularity to beat Bolsonaro in the presidential elections next year.
It even justifies the position of the Workers’ Party in the face of the ministerial reform that the Brazilian president sought. “He proceeded to fire the defense minister without thinking about the consequences and now he is in check,” warned Senator Jean Paul Prates, the minority leader of Lula’s party in the Senate. And he added: “Fortunately, I perceive that the heads of the Armed Forces are not willing to play the role of pawns on the Bolsonaro board.”