Bolsonaro Fires 3 Military Chiefs After Sacking Defense Head

Commanders of Brazil’s army, navy and air force were fired on Tuesday after President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed his defense chief as part of a broader cabinet restructuring.

The shake-up, precipitated by congressional allies who have been unhappy with the president’s pandemic response, displeased the heads of the military who received no advance warning about the replacement of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, according to two people close to the armed forces who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

Bolsonaro Fires 3 Military Chiefs After Sacking Defense Head

The dismissal of the three commanders -- General Edson Pujol, Admiral Ilques Barbosa and Brigadier Antonio Carlos Moretti Bermudez -- happened during meetings with Azevedo e Silva and Walter Braga Netto, who will take over as defense minister in the coming days, said two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

The change was announced by the ministry in a statement, and replacements haven’t been named yet. The three had been in their posts since January 2019.

“What happened was a rupture in the relationship between Bolsonaro and the institutional armed forces,” said Octavio Amorim Neto, a political scientist specializing in civil-military relations who teaches at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, one of Brazil’s top universities, in Rio de Janeiro. “This means one of the key pillars of his government is distancing itself from Bolsonaro.”

Read More: Bolsonaro Ousts Top Ministers as Pandemic Spirals Out of Control

Bolsonaro, a former army captain who’s not affiliated with any political party, has been under pressure to make room for allies from the centrist establishment he once disdained but now relies on to pass legislation and protect him from impeachment attempts.

As his handling of the pandemic comes under fire, he has also sought more explicit backing from the armed forces. Earlier this month, fighting governors who had imposed restrictions to commerce and the movement of people, he said “my army won’t go to the streets to ensure obedience to governors’ decrees.”

No Coup

The president also made comments on the possibility of declaring a state of siege, which would give him power over governors, but that would require backing from congress. That statement prompted a call from the Supreme Court justice seeking explanations, local media reported.

Yet Azevedo e Silva often dismissed Bolsonaro’s moves, more than once publishing statements where he reaffirmed the role of the armed forces as a state institution rather than a government body. He had been at the helm of the defense ministry since the president took office in January, 2019.

“During this period, I preserved the armed forces as a state institution,” Azevedo e Silva wrote in a terse statement following his dismissal on Monday.

Bolsonaro on Tuesday night said he plays by the constitution. “I can’t decree a state of siege, that’s up to congress,” he told supporters in front of the residential palace.

While the recent developments made clear there is a widening gap between Bolsonaro and the armed forces as the pandemic worsens -- on Tuesday, the country reported a record 3,780 deaths from the respiratory disease -- Brazil is not at risk of a coup, according to Amorim Neto.

“Even though he has been working closely with Bolsonaro, general Braga Netto is attached to the rule of law and the Constitution. He’s a conservative but not a die-hard Bolsonarista,” he says. “One thing is a certain degree of tolerance with the political excesses of Bolsonaro. To endorse his adventurous ideas is something else entirely.”

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