RIO DE JANEIRO – The leaders of all three branches of the Brazilian armed forces jointly resigned Tuesday after President Jair Bolsonaro replaced the defense minister, sparking widespread fear of a military upheaval that served the president’s political interests.
The Defense Ministry reported the resignations – apparently unprecedented since at least the end of military rule 36 years ago – in a statement without a reason. Substitutions were not named. However, analysts expressed fears that the increasingly pressured president could gain greater control over the military.
“We have not had any news of such a clear intervention from the president regarding the armed forces since 1985,” said Carlos Melo, professor of political science at Insper University in Sao Paulo.
Bolsonaro, a conservative former army captain who has often praised the earlier period of military dictatorship in Brazil, has relied heavily on current and former soldiers to fill key cabinet positions since taking office in January 2019, but Melo said the military itself has so far refrained from politics.
“Will this resistance continue? That is the question, “said Melo.
The announcement came after the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force met with the new Secretary of Defense, General Walter Souza Braga Netto, on Tuesday morning.
Braga Netto’s initial statement on the new job showed that it was in line with Bolsonaro’s views on the armed forces. The incoming defense minister, unlike his predecessor, celebrated the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, in which thousands of Brazilians were killed and tortured.
“The armed forces finally took responsibility for pacifying the country and faced the challenge of reorganizing it and securing the democratic freedoms we enjoy today,” said Braga Netto, who did not speak about the departure of the military chiefs. “The 1964 movement is part of the historical development of Brazil. And as such, the events of March 31st must be understood and celebrated. “
A retired Army general who has a relationship with the three commanders as well as Braga Netto told The Associated Press: “There was an embarrassing circumstance that they all resigned.” He agreed to discuss the matter only if it was not cited by name and expressed fear of retaliation.
Bolsonaro conducted a cabinet reorganization on Monday that was originally seen in response to calls for a course correction by lawmakers, diplomats and economists, particularly with regard to his handling of the pandemic that has caused more than 300,000 deaths in Brazil .
This included the replacement of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, who stated in his resignation letter that he had “preserved the armed forces as state institutions,” a nod to his efforts to keep generals out of politics.
Bolsonaro has often resisted the checks and balances imposed by other branches of government and has participated in protests against the Supreme Court and Congress.
He has also criticized the Supreme Court for upholding local governments’ right to impose pandemic restrictions, which it ruled against, arguing that the economic impact is worse than the disease itself.
His recent drop in popularity and the sudden likelihood that he will face left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the 2022 presidential election have analysts saying he is asking the armed forces for assistance.
Retired General Carlos Alberto Santos Cruz, who previously served as Bolsonaro’s Secretary of State, appeared to have raised such concerns when he tweeted in response to early rumors of military resignations: “THE ARMED FORCES WILL NOT GO ON AN ADVENTURE.”
Since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, the armed forces have tried to keep a distance from party-political disputes.
“The government must explain to the people about the change in the Ministry of Defense,” added Santos Cruz.
Senator Kátia Abreu, head of the Senate’s External Relations Commission, said it would be “prudent” for the new defense minister to “reassure the nation about the impossibility of military intervention.”
“I am convinced that we have built a strong democracy. The armed forces are part of the Brazilian state and we all trust them, ”said Abreu, a right-wing critic of Bolsonaro.
Earlier this month, Bolsonaro began to mention the armed forces in connection with his dispute with governors and mayors over restrictive measures designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Latin America’s largest nation.
“My army doesn’t take to the streets to force people to stay home,” Bolsonaro told reporters on March 19.
Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst, told AP that it was the first time in living memory that all military leaders had resigned at the same time.
“He wants people who do what he wants, and that’s why it’s extremely risky,” said Traumann. “He can take out the army so people can go to work. So the army would be in his hands and not in the hands of the generals. “
Bolsonaro spoke to supporters outside the presidential palace on Tuesday evening and did not discuss the three commanders. When asked about the pandemic restrictions imposed by governors and mayors, the president said he respected the constitution but added, “However, it has been some time since some authorities did not play within the limits of the constitution.”
Bolsonaro saw its popularity surge over the past year thanks to a generous pandemic relief program. That popularity has declined since the program ended in December, and protests against it re-emerged when the country’s daily death toll rose to the highest in the world.
Another clouding prospect for Bolsonaro is the reappearance of da Silva after a Supreme Court judge overturned two corruption convictions and restored his political rights. Early polls suggest he will be a great challenger in next year’s elections.
On other cabinet changes, Bolsonaro replaced Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, who has been accused by some of obstructing vaccine supplies by making comments considered offensive to the Chinese and not aggressively searching for sources.
Earlier this month, Bolsonaro also replaced his Minister of Health, General Eduardo Pazuello, the third Minister of Health to step down since the pandemic began. Pacuello’s tenure coincided with most of the 317,000 COVID-19 deaths in Brazil.
On Tuesday, the Brazilian Ministry of Health announced that it had registered a new daily high of 3,780 deaths related to COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. The previous high of 3,650 deaths was recorded on Friday.