Jair Bolsonaro’s administration in crisis has been shaken by the sudden dismissal of the Brazilian defense minister and the subsequent resignation of the heads of the three branches of the armed forces.
The commanders of the Brazilian army, navy and air force – General Edson Leal Pujol, Admiral Ilques Barbosa and Lieutenant-Brigade Antônio Carlos Bermudez – met the president’s new minister on Tuesday morning and reportedly handed over their resignation during a dramatic and passionate encounter. On Tuesday afternoon, the Defense Ministry confirmed the three will be replaced, a political earthquake that rocked a country already struggling with one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
The Folha de São Paulo newspaper said that never before in Brazilian history have the heads of the three branches of the military resigned because of a disagreement with a president.
The historic upheaval, which has left many Brazilians on edge, came after Brazil’s far-right president sacked Defense Minister Gen Fernando Azevedo e Silva on Monday in what one media report described as a chilly three-minute encounter. “I need your work,” Bolsonaro told the general, a longtime friend, according to the Estado de São Paulo newspaper.
Eliane Cantanhêde, a prominent journalist for the newspaper in the capital Brasília, said that General Azevedo e Silva had left the government after making it clear to the president – a former army captain who is known for his praise of the authorities – that the armed forces owed loyalty to the constitution and were not Bolsonaro’s personal force.
Bolsonaro has reportedly called for the impeachment of General Pujol, who, to the president’s apparent dismay, has publicly rejected the politicization of the Brazilian military and called for tighter restrictions on Covid, which has killed more than 314,000 Brazilians. Earlier this month, Bolsonaro – whose handling of the pandemic and opposition to the lockdown have been internationally condemned – sparked outrage by issuing a veiled threat to declare a “state of siege.”
Cantanhêde said: “The departure of General Fernando shows us that there is an important branch of the armed forces – in the army, navy and air force – which does not accept authoritarianism, coups d’état and violation of the constitution. Bolsonaro wants everyone to be his vassal and do whatever he commands … and many people inside [the armed forces] are now saying, “No sir, in fact we will not.” “
“This is extremely important because it shows that there is resistance in the armed forces to any type of coup plan… [and] Bolsonaro’s authoritarian project, ”Cantanhêde said.
Thomas Traumann, a Rio-based political observer and former Minister of Social Communication, called the shock events – which took place during a sweeping cabinet reshuffle – “truly historic.” The last time he remembered that an army chief had been dismissed from his post under such unusual circumstances was in 1977 when extremist general Sílvio Frota was sacked after attempting to overthrow the Brazilian dictator Ernesto Geisel, one of the military leaders who ruled 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 – does not go as usual. It’s really serious because you literally put one of Bolsonaro’s people in charge of the army in a threatening administration. [military] interventions – although we don’t know how far this is for real and how fair to fuel its political base.
“So far, this has only been rhetoric. But if you change the army commander, that’s one more step to make it a reality, ”added Traumann. “I know several generals and brigadiers and they are very alarmed.
Bolsonaro, a career politician who came to power in October amid a wave of anti-establishment rage fueled by fake news, is a notorious admirer of Latin American autocrats and has publicly praised former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as well as the generals who were in charge. Brazil when he was a paratrooper in the late 1970s. He has repeatedly named his favorite book as a book by Col Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a dictatorship-era torturer accused of overseeing torture sessions in during which the victims were shocked and beaten with canes. During a series of anti-democratic protests last year, Brazil’s democratically elected leader urged flag-waving radicals to demand a return to military rule. His politician son, Eduardo, who is Steve Bannon’s representative in South America, warned last year that Brazil was facing an “institutional rupture”.
Traumann said he saw no immediate chance of a break with democracy or an attempted coup amid this week’s turmoil, but feared Bolsonaro – who faces mounting political pressure over his catastrophic response to Covid – Seeks to install more flexible military leaders in case his attempt to secure a second presidential term in 2022 has failed.
“In my head at least, the biggest institutional risk is having a January 6,” said Traumann, referring to the assault on the US Capitol by crowds who supported Bolsonaro’s political idol Donald Trump.
“If Bolsonaro loses the election and disputes the result, how will the armed forces react? For me, this is the key question. “
Bolsonaro’s re-election chances have taken a heavy blow this month after his nemesis, former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was released to challenge him after the surprise decision to overturn corruption convictions against him. “Lula’s return to politics changes everything,” said his former foreign minister, Celso Amorim. Many now expect Lula to appear against Bolsonaro in 2022.
“We live between these two worlds. Some light at the end of the tunnel from a political point of view and total darkness from a health point of view, from a life point of view, ”Amorim said.
Cantanhêde said Bolsonaro’s high-risk ploy to shore up military support – which risks angering key figures in the armed forces – came to an increasingly desperate president who was hemorrhaging support, including among the Brazilian economic elite, thanks to its “horrific” reaction to Covid. Polls suggest Bolsonaro still enjoys the support of around 30% of the population, but is seen as the main culprit in the Covid calamity in Brazil by 43% of citizens and rejected by almost half of the country. “He’s weak,” Cantanhêde said. “He’s cornered.