Brazilian military chiefs to be replaced after Bolsonaro sacks defence minister

Move exposes deep tensions between president and the military’s high command over his efforts to align it with his far-right agenda

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro  and army commander Edson Pujol: the head of the army has a notoriously frosty relationship with the president.  Photograph:  Getty Images

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and army commander Edson Pujol: the head of the army has a notoriously frosty relationship with the president. Photograph: Getty Images

 

A cabinet reshuffle by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro designed to contain a deepening political crisis caused by his handling of the pandemic has provoked the greatest upheaval in the military in decades.

On Tuesday the government announced the heads of the three branches of the armed forces would be replaced just a day after Mr Bolsonaro’s sudden sacking of his defence minister. It was not immediately clear if the three commanders had quit or been sacked.

The move exposed deep tensions between the president and the military’s high command over his efforts to align it with his far-right agenda.

On being forced out on Monday as defence minister, retired general Fernando Azevedo e Silva said in a statement he had “preserved the armed forces as institutions of the state”. This was widely interpreted as a warning about attempts by Mr Bolsonaro to drag the military into his disputes with political opponents.

Among the outgoing military chiefs is the head of the army, Gen Edson Pujol, who had a notoriously frosty relationship with the president, whose previous efforts to remove him had been blocked by Mr Azevedo e Silva.

The former defence minister, along with Gen Pujol and other commanders, had resisted efforts to align the armed forces with the president in his fight against lockdown measures imposed by state governors in a bid to contain the spread of coronavirus.

This dispute sparked a constitutional crisis last year amid indications the president was advocating a coup against the country’s other institutions.

Mr Bolsonaro has consistently resisted efforts to contain the pandemic despite Brazil being one of the world’s worst hit countries, having suffered more than 315,000 deaths. It is currently in the grip of a devastating new wave that has pushed parts of the country’s health system to collapse.

Branch chiefs

Mr Azevedo e Silva was replaced at defence by another retired general, Walter Braga Netto, who had served as Mr Bolsonaro’s cabinet chief. More closely aligned with the president, he will co-ordinate the replacement of the outgoing branch chiefs.

Mr Bolsonaro’s surprise reshuffle at the top of the military command has reignited concerns about his authoritarian ambitions but comes at a moment of intense political weakness. Defence was one of six changes made on Monday at key ministries that saw the president sacrifice several allies to appease Congress.

The reshuffle followed a warning last week by the head of the lower house, Arthur Lira, that the administration’s “spiral of errors” could force Congress to take “fatal” remedies. His speech was viewed as a warning that Mr Bolsonaro’s congressional allies could cede to demands for the opening of impeachment proceedings unless he finally gets to grips with the pandemic which is raging uncontrolled across the country.

Among those forced out on Monday was controversial foreign minister Ernesto Araújo. He was widely viewed as a block on efforts to remedy Brazil’s stuttering vaccine rollout because of his open hostility towards China, a major supplier of vaccine ingredients.