GP Insights

GP Insights # 495, 4 April 2021

Brazil: The COVID turmoil spills over into a political one
D Suba Chandran

What happened?
On 30 March, the military leadership heading the three branches – Army, Navy and Airforce resigned following the Bolsonaro replacing the minister of Defence. During mid-March, Bolsonaro also replaced the health minister.

On 29 March, Bolsonaro also removed three ministers from the cabinet – foreign minister, defence minister and justice minister. 

On 31 March, President Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer, observed the military coup in 1964. His Vice President, a former General, tweeted: "On this day, 57 years ago, the Brazilian people with the support of the armed forces stopped the international communist movement from sticking its tongs in Brazil." A small crowd gathered in Rio to observe the same.

What is the background?
First, the rising COVID-19 causalities and the public anger against the President. Brazil's casualty rates have been climbing steeply during the recent weeks and have already crossed 310,000. President Bolsonaro has been accused of not paying serious attention to the nature of the threat and taking adequate action to address the pandemic. He refused to impose lockdown or to insist on social distancing. As a result, there is a mounting casualty, which is yet to reach its peak. There is anger against the President – both at the national and provincial levels.

Second, the efforts by President Bolsonaro to shift the blame on the others. Brazil has witnessed four health ministers during the COVID period since January 2019. The present minister - Marcelo Cartaxo Lopes replaced Eduardo Pazuello in March 2021. Eduardo served only for seven months;  he replaced Nelson Teich in September 2020. Nelson Teich replaced Luiz Mandetta; the latter served until March 2020, when Bolsonaro disapproved of his position on social distancing and COVID strategy. Bolsonarao also replaced Brazil's foreign minister, blaming him for failing to secure COVID vaccines for the country.

Third, a political development outside the COVID crisis in Brazil. The former President of Brazil Luiz Lula (2003-2010) is back now after the Supreme Court dismissed the corruption charges against him. This would mean Lula would be contesting in the forthcoming Presidential election in 2022 against Bolsonaro. Given the public anger, Bolsonaro should be deeply worried, and the changes at the top level in the government should be an attempt to deflect criticism against him.

What does it mean?
Bolsonaro's decision to replace the defence minister and the resignations of the three military chiefs should underline the efforts by the President to have a pliable military. Bolsonaro never shied away from applauding the role of the military and even eulogized it. As the opposition against him mounts, and with Lula's return to politics, he is no longer the strong man of Brazil. 
The question is: Is Bolsonaro trying to get the military on his side and getting ready to engage it if the opposition mounts against him? 

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