A supporter of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro places his image on a car.

Global Politics

Bolsonaro’s Cabinet reshuffle triggers worst military crisis since the ’70s

On Tuesday, the heads of the Brazilian navy, army and air force jointly resigned after Bolsonaro removed the defense minister in a major Cabinet reshuffle. This comes on the anniversary of Brazil's 1964 coup that ushered in a decadeslong dictatorship.

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A supporter of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro places his image on a car during a gathering commemorating the 1964 military coup that established a decadeslong dictatorship, in the Esplanade of Ministries in Brasilia, Brazil, March 31, 2021. 

Credit:

Eraldo Peres/AP

If the worsening COVID-19 crisis in Brazil wasn’t bad enough, the country now faces what many are calling the worst military crisis since the 1970s. 

Related: Brazil struggles with new COVID-19 strain and oxygen shortages

It comes amid a major reshuffling in the Cabinet of President Jair Bolsonaro on the anniversary of the country’s 1964 coup.

Bolsonaro pushed out six leading members of his Cabinet on Monday. On Tuesday, the heads of the Brazilian navy, army and air force jointly resigned in protest of Bolsonaro’s removal of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva. 

Related: Brazil's Supreme Court throws out corruption convictions against former President Lula

Half of the replacements are centrists. The other half are longtime Bolsonaro loyalists.

Brazilian political scientist Luciano da Ros said it’s a power move to align the military, police and judiciary more firmly under his control.

“Bolsonaro made concessions to the centrist political forces in order to do what he really wanted: To double down on the strengthening of the coercive capacity of the government. Not the state, but the Bolsonaro government."

Luciano da Ros, political scientist

“Bolsonaro made concessions to the centrist political forces in order to do what he really wanted: to double down on the strengthening of the coercive capacity of the government. Not the state, but the Bolsonaro government,” Ros said. 

That point is key. 

“We know that the reshuffling of his cabinet and the firing of some members of the armed forces, including the Minister of Defense, were done because Bolsonaro expected from them total submission."

Federico Finchelstein, historian

“We know that the reshuffling of his Cabinet and the firing of some members of the armed forces, including the minister of defense, were done because Bolsonaro expected from them total submission,” said Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian who has written extensively about fascism and populism in Brazil and Latin America.

“He sees the army as, he has called it, ‘his army,’ rather than a state institution,” he said.

“This is a manufactured crisis from a leader that expects a kind of anti-democratic submission to the president from the armed forces.”

Related: Bolsonaro loses big in Brazil's local elections 

Bolsonaro is a former military captain who served under a dictatorship that ran from 1964 through 1985. The Brazilian military is a major force in Bolsonaro’s government, holding more top positions in his coalition and Cabinet than at any point since the dictatorship. His vice president, Gen. Hamilton Mourão, served in the Brazilian army for almost five decades.

What sparked the crisis?

It’s not yet clear what happened to spark the ouster of the defense minister and the defection of the heads of the armed forces, but Lucas Rezende, a professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina said there is one clear hypothesis. 

Bolsonaro has fought local and regional lockdowns since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“Most likely what [Bolsonaro] ordered was putting the military on the streets in these states or cities that the governors or the mayors decided on some kind of local social restrictions."

Lucas Rezende, professor, Federal University of Santa Catarina

“Most likely what he ordered was putting the military on the streets in these states or cities that the governors or the mayors decided on some kind of local social restrictions,” Rezende said.

A week and a half ago, Bolsonaro told supporters that social restrictions from local authorities were paving the way for a dictatorship by pushing the country toward social crisis.

"The moment will come," he said. "I hope it doesn't, but the moment will come."

Bolsonaro’s son, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, took to social media over the weekend to encourage police riots against governors who adopt social isolation measures.

This week, one of Bolsonaro’s top allies in Congress proposed to fast-track a bill that, if approved, would give the president exceptional powers to combat the pandemic with force. It was overwhelmingly rejected. Opposition parties called it an attempted coup.

'The timing here is no accident'

All of this comes amid the anniversary of the coup d'état, which sank Brazil into a military dictatorship. 

On March 31, 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew President João Goulart, starting a military regime that would last for two decades. Hundreds were disappeared. Thousands were imprisoned. Roughly 30,000 people were tortured, according to a 2007 report from a government commission investigating state crimes.

But after taking power in 2019, Bolsonaro called on his supporters to commemorate the date with fireworks and celebrations. 

One video montage shared recently over Twitter shows Bolsonaro celebrating.

He said: “This is the date the military saved Brazil from becoming another Cuba ... March 31 is our day of freedom.”

Bolsonaro’s new defense minister issued an official note Tuesday night calling on the population to “understand and celebrate” Wednesday'ss anniversary.

The timing here is no accident, Rezende said. 

“Bolsonaro has many times repeated how he misses the dictatorship and how the dictatorship was too soft.”

Lucas Rezende, professor, Federal University of Santa Catarina

“There is absolutely and certainly a connection between the celebration of the coup d'état in 1964 and the timing Bolsonaro decided to ask the armed forces to do what shouldn’t be done by the constitution,” Rezende said. “Bolsonaro has many times repeated how he misses the dictatorship and how the dictatorship was too soft.”

Rezende’s outlook for the coming months is bleak. He thinks there could either be a military coup against Bolsonaro, a Bolsonaro authoritarian power-grab — if he can force the military to his will — or Bolsonaro’s own impeachment. 

Related: Calls for Bolsonaro's impeachment intensify 

Other analysts point out that the resignations of top military officials are an important sign that Bolsonaro is losing support from the armed forces just a year and a half from the country’s next presidential election. 

"I do not see any possibility of a coup. I don’t see Bolsonaro having success in mobilizing military police."

Manuel Domingos Neto, historian and longtime researcher of the Brazilian military, as told to local media

"I do not see any possibility of a coup. I don’t see Bolsonaro having success in mobilizing military police,” Manuel Domingos Neto, a historian and longtime researcher of the Brazilian military, told local media on Tuesday night.

But while this all may be a sign of Bolsonaro’s growing weakness, this is also a moment of crisis in Brazil — in politics, in the military and in health — and that is a space where Bolsonaro has been known to thrive.

“So far, Bolsonarism and Bolsonaro have gained from chaos. That’s their logic. That’s how they operate. And through chaos, with the threat of further chaos, they have been able to usually gain what they wanted."

Rafael R. Ioris, professor, University of Denver

“So far, Bolsonarism and Bolsonaro have gained from chaos. That’s their logic. That’s how they operate. And through chaos, with the threat of further chaos, they have been able to usually gain what they wanted,” said Rafael R. Ioris, a professor at the University of Denver. “I’m not sure we are on the brink of some sort of coup. But it is a concerning situation."

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