Bolsonaro Ousts Top Ministers as Pandemic Spirals Out of Control

President Jair Bolsonaro announced sweeping cabinet changes amid growing pressure from the pandemic that’s ravaging Brazil.

Bolsonaro, an idiosyncratic rightist who swept into office just over two years ago in a Trumpian triumph, had to accept members of the centrist establishment he once disdained while seeking to hold onto his military and ideological bases. The resignations and firings on Monday spanned a half a dozen top posts, including minister of defense, foreign affairs and justice.

The new secretary of the government is from that establishment while his new minister of justice comes from his right-wing base.

Bolsonaro Ousts Top Ministers as Pandemic Spirals Out of Control

Like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro thrives on surprise and disarray. But over the past year, the surprises haven’t been of his making. He dismissed Covid-19 as trivial only to find himself presiding over a daily death toll and caseload that now lead the world and have challenged every national institution.

The shift in Washington from the Trump to the Biden administration along with the recent return to Brazilian politics of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a popular former president and leader of the left, have added keenly to his challenges.

“Bolsonaro needs to balance the cultural war characteristic of his government, maintaining the effervescent ideological wing because without it he will not survive,” said Deysi Cioccari, a political scientist and professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro had to give up one of hs closest allies, foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, after lawmakers complained bitterly that he had let his ideology interfere with the duties of obtaining vaccines from top producers, like China and the U.S. Brazil has deployed about 21 million shots so far, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s enough to cover 7.7% of the population with one shot and fully vaccinate just 2.3%.

More than 312,000 Brazilians have died from Covid and more than 12 million have been infected in a nation of 212 million. Just last week, Bolsonaro appointed a new health minister -- Brazil’s fourth in a year -- to deal with the crisis.

On Monday, he also moved aside his defense minister, Fernando Azevedo e Silva. General Walter Souza Braga Netto will take his place, while General Luiz Eduardo Ramos was appointed as Braga Netto’s replacement as chief of staff.

Bolsonaro Ousts Top Ministers as Pandemic Spirals Out of Control

Araujo tendered his resignation earlier on Monday after days of mounting pressure from lawmakers and a weekend that saw a Twitter spat with a key member of the Senate.

Hours later, Azevedo e Silva announced he was stepping down in a statement to the press. He did so after being asked by Bolsonaro to resign, people familiar with the matter said.

The changes, which were confirmed by the government in a statement, also include Anderson Gustavo Torres, a federal police senior official, who becomes the new justice minister; Lawmaker Flavia Arruda, who takes over as Secretary of government, a key post in negotiations with congress. And Andre Luiz Mendonca, who was appointed as attorney general. Ambassador Carlos Alberto França replaces Araujo.

The cabinet changes are Bolsonaro’s latest attempt to diffuse the growing Covid crisis amid harsh criticism from the business community and his own allies. Over the last few weeks, the president shifted his language about vaccines and struck a more conciliatory tone in an attempt to build bridges. Since leaving the so-called PSL party in 2019, Bolsonaro doesn’t have a party of his own, and relies entirely on alliances for support within Brazil’s fragmented political scene.

The almost daily records in cases and deaths from the virus are also taking a toll on Bolsonaro’s popularity. His handling of the Covid crisis is disapproved by 54% of Brazilians, according to a Datafolha survey published this month.

“Bolsonaro is trying to keep and balance the forces that support his government. The military is still represented with many ministers, and centrao with Flavia Arruda is stronger than ever inside government,” said Cioccari.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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