Brazil’s Armed Forces pull away from Jair Bolsonaro

On March 29, a cabinet switch up by President Bolsonaro of Brazil ignited strife within the Brazilian military. Bolsonaro got rid of nearly a third of his cabinet and replaced them with his allies. One of the largest problems with this change was the removal of General Fernando Azevedo e Silva, who was the minister of defense with 45 years’ service as a solider in the Brazilian military. This removal caused a lot of uproar and prompted the heads of the Brazilian army, navy, and air force – Edson Leal Pujol, Ilques Barbosa, and Antonio Carlos Bermudez – to resign in protest a day later. The cause of the changes have been speculated, but these resignations are unprecedented.

In his letter of resignation General Azevedo stated that during his time as the minister of defense he “preserved the armed forces as a state institution.” This implied that President Bolsonaro was forcing the army to get involved in politics in a new way and, for the most part, entirely against their will. However, others have argued that these different military moves as a way to cut lies with the government. The government of Brazil has been on the path towards more militarization for a while, but the pandemic greatly accelerated the process. Earlier this month, the president announced that the army would not “force people to stay home” in regards to the coronavirus pandemic. This is a deviation from other countries around the world because Bolsonaro seemed to be enlisting military efforts to garner opposition to a lockdown instead of support. Last week, on March 24th, the speaker of the lower house of Congress, Arthur Lira, stated, “[the pandemic is] the greatest humanitarian disgrace that has befallen our people.” Lira further hinted at the possible impeachment of President Bolsonaro. According to Marcos Nobre, a political analyst, this cabinet shuffle was meant to be a message “that [Bolsonaro] is the one in charge.” Additionally, Carolos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, Bolsonaro’s former secretary of government, said, “The message that has been sent is that the armed forces respect the constitution…All three branches will not tolerate political interference of any kind.” Christoph Harig of the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg thinks that it is more likely that “they also sense the opportunity to jump ship.” He also added that he “would expect them to remain heavily politicized in the next few years whatever Bolsonaro does.”

There is lots of speculation and different opinions surrounding Bolsonaro’s decision to replace almost a third of his cabinet. However, it is clear that Brazil has been on the road to greater government militarization for a while now. The coronavirus pandemic really pushed this process along and this most recent decision is further proof that Bolsonaro is focusing more and more on the Brazilian military and getting the military more involved in government affairs and politics.

Ever since Brazil became a democracy 36 years ago, the country has been hesitant about the role the army plays in the government and public affairs. Due to this caution, the military has held some of its privileges but in more than 3 decades there has never been a question of civilian rule. Even so, the three presidents of Brazil before Bolsonaro continuously expanded the role of the military in internal public security. Bolsonaro, however, was the first to promise to bring military generals into the government. Under his presidency, thousands of military personnel were appointed to government positions in varying departments. In regards to his lack of a lockdown, he unconventionally used the military to try to gain support for a lack of a lockdown; this has only caused COVID-19 deaths to rise in recent months and his approval rating to fall from 59% to 37%.

The future and the ending of this crisis depends on how President Bolsonaro fills the positions that were recently vacated by the three resignations. Traditionally, the army, navy, and air force chiefs are chosen from a list of each service’s three most senior officers. However, President Bolsonaro could technically appoint any four-star officer he likes, which would, in turn, force even more senior officers to resign. Thus, complicating and prolonging the crisis.