Brazil: Cornered, Isolated and Weakened, Bolsonaro Overplays His Military Card

As Brazil turns into the global epicentre of the pandemic, the Brazilian president made a brazen attempt to grab more powers and failed.

Sao Paulo: Brazil has been on the edge since Monday. But the anxiety is not just because of its hospitals running low on oxygen and the ICU units scrambling for life-saving medicines. The country was dragged to the brink of a new crisis by Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who made a brazen attempt to tighten his grip on power that seems to be slipping from his hands.

In just 24 hours, starting on Monday, Bolsonaro started a crisis within the country’s armed forces by firing the defence minister, Fernando Azevedo, and then dismissing the three services chiefs. The move came because the minister and the three chiefs refused to “play politics” as demanded by the mercurial leader.

Azevedo, a retired general, was shown the door after a brief encounter with Bolsonaro on Monday. On Tuesday, as it became clear that the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force – General Edson Pujol, Admiral Ilques Barbosa and Brigadier Antonio Bermudez respectively – would put in their papers in support of Azevedo, Bolsonaro made a pre-emptive strike and sent them home at once – a first in the history of Brazil.

Such a drastic move in the middle of a raging pandemic by Bolsonaro, a former army captain who never tires of bragging about his close ties with the country’s armed forces and shamelessly praises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, made many suspicious about the president’s intention.

Fernando Azevedo was fired as Brazil’s defence minister. Photo: Reuters

An absent government   

Running an inept government since January 2019, Bolsonaro put Brazil on a dangerous path when faced with COVID-19. Even with 12.7 million infections, 3,21,000 deaths and some 90,000 daily infections in the country, which is now the global epicentre of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has refused to change course. Instead, he has been urging people to go to work, provoking them to meet in gatherings and asking them to stop “whining about the virus”. With the country’s healthcare system facing an imminent collapse and the economy in a downward spiral, Bolsonaro’s popularity has sunk to a new low. (A survey between March 29 and March 31 put his rejection rate at 59%, a new record since the beginning of the pandemic.)

Today Brazil has been shunned by the world. Because of his disastrous handling of the pandemic, Bolsonaro stands on a sticky wicket. In Brazil’s unique political system – known as a presidential coalition – in which the chief executive runs the country with the support of some political parties in the Congress, Bolsonaro is now at the mercy of a cluster of opportunist parties, collectively known as the Centrao. In a clear sign of how weak Bolsonaro has become, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Artur Lira, a leader of the Centrao, last week chastised the government for its “failure” against the pandemic. “Everything has a limit,” Lira said in a statement, which was seen as a threat to impeach Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro got another jolt a week ago when an open letter, signed by 200 top bankers, businessmen, economists and former public sector officials, blasted the government’s handling of the pandemic. In the letter, the country’s financial elite, which had supported Bolsonaro in the 2018 elections, demanded more vaccines, free masks and social distancing rules – all the measures opposed by the far-right leader.

Bolsonaro got a bigger blow on Monday, when he was forced by the Senate, which oversees Brazil’s international relations, to dismiss his minister of foreign affairs, Ernesto Araújo, who is considered the “worst diplomat” in the history of Brazil. The firing of Araújo, a conspiracy theorist who has infamously claimed that the “Nazis were leftists” and that climate change was a “Marxist plot” against the West, was a humiliation for Bolsonaro as the diplomat was aligned to him ideologically. Bolsonaro and his third son Eduardo tried to save Araujo, who is an important player in their far-right cultural war at home and abroad. But the Senate, also led by a Centrao figure, managed to claim Araujo’s head.

In his 23 months at Itamaraty, as the Brazilian foreign ministry is known as, Araújo did massive damage to the country’s foreign policy as he – bizarrely – followed the policy of turning Brazil into an international undesirable. In the middle of the pandemic, when Brazil needed a steady hand to steer its foreign policy as the country needed vaccines and medical equipment, Araújo went on to attack Brazil’s two key partners, the US and China, and also damaged relations with India, another supplier of vaccines and medicines to Brazil. After the Senate managed to get rid of Araujo for “damaging the country’s relations with important partners”, Bolsonaro tried to appoint an equally far-right diplomat in his place. But the Senate leaders put their foot down, forcing the president to name Carlos Alberto França, an obscure diplomat with no experience as an ambassador, as the new foreign minister.

The removal of Araujo was a second personal defeat for Bolsonaro in as many weeks. On March 23, the president was forced to name a doctor as the new health minister in place of Eduardo Pazuello, a serving general of the army who is now under investigation for his handling of the pandemic, leading to millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths on his watch.

Also, the return of former president Lula da Silva to active politics has turned Bolsonaro into a nervous wreck. With the entire judicial process that convicted him for corruption annulled by the Supreme Court, Lula is now free to run for president in 2022. In recent weeks, Lula has been talking to the international media like a statesman, seeking international cooperation and vaccines for all. For Bolsonaro, who blames the media for “scaring” people about the pandemic, it is a nightmare he can’t handle.

Also Read: Brazil: Lula’s Return Means There Is Finally Some Hope for Workers

A coup from within 

In 1987, then a captain in the army, Bolsonaro allegedly planted bombs in the military headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, to protest against the low salaries of junior officers. An inquiry, comprising three colonels, found Bolsonaro guilty of the plot. But a Superior Military Tribunal acquitted him in 1988. Bolsonaro was not expelled from the army, but he was retired as a lieutenant though he held the rank of captain at the time.

Faced with a crisis, Bolsonaro tends to create a bigger crisis. In the past ten days, as he was forced to dismiss his favourite ministers, came under pressure from the Centrao and Brazilian elite, there has been speculation about Bolsonaro trying to trigger a “self-coup” to save himself from impeachment. With Brazil’s pandemic toll skyrocketing, Bolsonaro reportedly asked the army commanders to show their support to him on social media. But the army, whose image is in tatters because of General Pauzello, pushed back against the demand. Former defence minister Azevedo e Silva’s resignation letter is quite revealing in this context. “I have protected the Armed Forces as an institution of the State,” Azevedo wrote, hinting that Bolsonaro was demanding personal loyalty from the military.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro talks with Eduardo Pazuello, who was sacked recently as the country’s health minister. Photo: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/Files

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro was also working on other dangerous strategies. With the country in suspense about the fate of the military chiefs, the President’s supporters made an attempt to take control of the armed police units of all 26 states, which report to their respective governors. The attempt was made through a parliamentary Bill moved by Bolsonaro’s supporters in Congress. But it was vetoed by the House. If approved, the law would have given Bolsonaro the power to control all military and police forces – a constitutional provision allowed only in the event of a foreign invasion. A day earlier, Bolsonaro’s supporters, including his son Eduardo, had used social media to provoke the state police units, some of whom are considered sympathetic to the president, to revolt against their governors.

Also Read: Maximum Cultural War, Minimum Governance: How Jair Bolsonaro Runs Brazil

Such brazen behaviour by Bolsonaro on the eve of March 31, the day Brazil fell to a military coup in 1964, was an ominous sign. Throughout his political career of three decades, Bolsonaro has praised the military dictatorship that crushed Brazil for 21 years. Since becoming the president, he has often used the term “my army” for the defence forces with whom he has enjoyed a cosy relationship. With more than 6,000 active and retired military personnel holding government posts – from cabinet positions to chief of state enterprises to lucrative advisory roles – many observers see it as a military government run by a former captain. So deeply entrenched are the forces in Bolsonaro’s government that some observers refer to them as the “Military Party”.

So, it was not surprising that Bolsonaro turned to the military for support when he felt cornered by the Centrao, warned by the elite and faced with people’s anger. But the turn of events on Wednesday show that the military might be distancing itself from the beleaguered president. After a night of speculation that Bolsonaro might pick a new army chief who will do his political bidding, the president named General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira as the commander of the Brazilian Army. The name came as a shock to both the president’s supporters and detractors. Known as the least political of all commanders, General Nogueira has been successfully leading the fight against the pandemic within the armed forces – in contrast to Bolsonaro’s colossal failure.

Gravediggers wearing protective suits prepare for burial in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 25, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

As the head of the Army’s personnel department, General Nogueira has been responsible for the health of all Brazilian troops – serving and retired – and their families. On Tuesday, it was reported that Bolsonaro was extremely irritated by an interview the general gave in which he defended all the measures against COVID-19, especially social distancing, the point that Bolsonaro opposes the most. “From the arrival at the barracks until the instruction, we monitor the soldiers all the time. We tested practically all our recruits, almost 90%, and the contamination rate was very low,” said General Nogueira told the newspaper Correio Braziliense.

What got Bolsonaro’s goat, according to military sources, was the revelation by the general that the COVID-19 toll in the forces was just a fraction of the fatalities in the “general population due to the prevention that we have”. The interview, according to reports, set in motion a chain of events which have cut Bolsonaro down to size. As per sources, angered by the interview, the president asked the defence minister to tell the then army chief, General Edson Pujol, to fire General Nogueira. As the minister and the top commanders refused to punish General Nogueira, Bolsonaro provoked a crisis by firing all of them in the hope that the top command would fall in line.

But just 24 hours later, it seems Bolsonaro overplayed his cards, as the general whose head he had sought was named as the new army chief. “Our priority is to fight the pandemic,” said Braga Netto, the new defence minister who is himself a retired general, as he introduced the army chief on Wednesday. It was a clear indication that the military was prioritising the pandemic over politics – at least for the moment.

It is still early to say how the Bolsonaro-armed forces equation will play out in the future, but right now there are some cracks in it. The army’s image has taken a beating in recent months because of General Pauzello’s performance as the health minister and also because of revelations that in 2018, then army chief put pressure on the Supreme Court to keep Lula barred from elections – a decision which led to Bolsonaro’s rise to power.

Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Sao Bernardo do Campo near Sao Paulo, Brazil March 10, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Brazilian military historian Manuel Domingos Neto sees the episode of the past three days as a calculated manoeuvre by the Army to rid itself of any responsibility for the catastrophe Brazil is suffering. “It was an operation aimed at saving the army’s image,” Neto told the ‘Tutameia’ YouYube channel. With the army distancing itself, at least publicly, from Bolsonaro, the president is now a cornered beast, says Neto. “He has lost respect, fell in the polls, terrified of having to face an opponent [Lula] who has great popular support. He is a lost man as bodies pile up across the country,” said Neto on the channel.

In the past three days, Bolsonaro tried to spark a crisis in the military to get out of the pandemic crisis. Now, he is trapped into two crises of his own making.

Florencia Costa and Shobhan Saxena are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.