The heads of Brazil’s armed forces simultaneously resigned last week, in protest of the president’s firing of the defence secretary, Fernando Azevedo e Silva. This marks a significant crisis point in President Jair Bolsanaro’s leadership, at a time where the country is battling one of the world’s worst COVID-19 epidemics.
Gen Edson Leal Pujol, Adm Ilques Barbosa and Lt-Brig Antônio Carlos Bermudez, commanders of Brazil’s army, navy, and air force, resigned last week. The military confirmed in a statement that they “had been substituted”. For Jair Bolsanaro, a former army captain, this is a surprising loss of support. Throughout his presidency he has attempted to increase military involvement in the government, and appointed active duty and retired military figures to key government roles.
The far-right Brazilian President has long been controversial. In 2019 he ordered a commemoration of the coup that brought Brazil’s military to power for 21 years between 1964 and 1985, before a return to democracy. His firing of the defence minister, apparently over a disagreement over whether the military should serve the president or the constitution, has proven to be costly for his presidency and public image.
Speaking on the resignation Carlos Fico, professor of military studies at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said: “In the history of the republic, there has never been a decision by the three commanders to resign at the same time, much less in protest against the president. There was never a crisis of these dimensions before”
Thomas Trumann, a political observer in Rio, commented on the appointment of a new defense minister: “Changing the army commander in a country like Brazil – and during an administration like Bolsonaro’s – isn’t business as usual. This is genuinely serious stuff because you are literally putting one of Bolsonaro’s people in charge of the army in an administration that threatens [military] interventions – even if we don’t know how much of that is for real and how much just to fire up his political base.
“So far this has just been rhetoric. But if you change the commander of the army that’s one step closer to making it a reality. I know several generals and brigadiers and they are very alarmed.”
Alongside this crisis, President Bolsanaro faces another huge shock to his leadership: the COVID-19 outbreak. A mid-march poll revealed that 54% of Brazil’s population thought the president’s response to the pandemic had been “bad” or “very bad”. General support is also poor, with 45% of Brazilians saying they never trust the President’s words.
Throughout the pandemic, Bolsanaro has consistently downplayed the severity of the situation, telling his country to “stop whining”. He has generally opposed measures to reduce the virus’ spread, including lockdowns, instead choosing to prioritise the economy. Yet this decision has proven costly. At the time of writing, the country has seen 336,947 deaths from COVID-19 and, despite beginning it’s vaccine program, is far from keeping the virus under control.