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With pandemic out of control, army distances itself from Jair Bolsonaro


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With the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian army has reconquered the spheres of power. She holds key positions in ministries, institutions and public enterprises. While defending its influence on political life, it no longer seems to maintain unwavering links with the Brazilian president. Because the repercussions of the disastrous management of the Covid-19 epidemic in the country constitute a time bomb that can permanently discredit it.

With 66,000 dead in March, and 100,000 more expected in April alone, Brazil is experiencing a real debacle in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. As the slaughter continues, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro wondered in March, in one of his weekly Facebook chats, whether he should not simply use “his” army to prevent governors. and mayors to enforce social distancing measures in their state or city.

But in the midst of a health crisis, his desire to make the army play a clearly political role encountered opposition within the institution itself. After appointing 6,000 soldiers at the head of ministries, federal agencies and public enterprises since his accession to power, the president, always so unpredictable, launched a standoff a few days ago with the high command of the Brazilian army.

The generals take their distance

On March 29, the Minister of Defense, General Fernando Azevedo e Silva, announced his departure from government. This close friend of Jair Bolsonaro was then replaced by another general, Walter Braga Netto, already a member of the government. The first would have periodically expressed reservations vis-à-vis the “boss”, while the second seems more inclined to follow the orders of the Brazilian president to the letter.

The next day, to everyone’s surprise, the heads of the three forces (air force, army and navy) resigned collectively after the ousting of their supervisory minister, thus publicly expressing their disagreement with the president.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks with a serviceman during a Soldier’s Day ceremony at the Brazilian military headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil, August 23, 2019. © AFP (Archive)

For Gaspard Estrada, director of the Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Brazilian president clearly attempted “a coup to regain control of the Brazilian army” and the latter responded “by taking his distances so as not to undermine its credit with public opinion because of its participation in the Bolsonaro government and its disastrous management of the pandemic “.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Jair Bolsonaro has strongly “militarized” his government: a third of the ministers come from the army, a higher proportion than under the military regime established after the coup d’état of 1964. And the president even attempted a “self-coup”, recalls the political scientist: in May 2020, during a cabinet meeting (whose recording had leaked in the press), the president had mentioned the closure of Congress and the removal of the 11 Supreme Court judges by the armed forces, which the generals refused to do.

The Brazilian army wonders

After two and a half years of Bolsonaro’s presidency, the Brazilian army constitutes the backbone of the current government and is no longer the neutral and subject to political power that it was after the return to democracy in 1985.

For Armelle Enders, historian at the University of Paris 8 and specialist in Brazil, a real military party was formed in 2014, actively contributing to the dismissal of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and to the conviction and then ineligibility of Lula in 2018. , a few months before the presidential election which saw the victory of Jair Bolsonaro.

“The military has returned to power,” she said, but “the institution is not monolithic and does not lack lucid minds. The bankruptcy of the government will also be that of the armed forces. The disastrous passage of the general Pazuello by the Ministry of Health has seriously damaged the reputation of the military for efficiency. The gap is widening between the military who wants to stick to their constitutional mission and those who are ready to fire. against Congress, governors or the Supreme Court. “

Eduardo Heleno, specialist in strategic studies at the Federal University Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, adds in an interview with the daily El País that “if the new commanders of the armed forces want to reduce the politicization of the army, they should withdraw positions [de pouvoir] that they occupy and return to the barracks. But there isn’t the slightest hint that they intend to. “

Health disaster and political speculation

If the military has helped weaken democracy in Brazil in recent years, when it opposes Jair Bolsonaro, it is obviously in order to preserve its influence. No way to burn your wings by tying your fate too tightly to a president whose popularity is declining as the number of Covid-19 victims explodes.

Like the army, other Brazilian institutions are playing a game that is difficult to decipher. For Gaspard Estrada, “of course, the judiciary has stopped the most fantastic initiatives of Jair Bolsonaro against democracy. But by having legally legitimized the conviction of Lula which, with a little distance, turns out to be a great absurdity , the judicial institution is involved in the Brazilian political crisis, this dystopia that has been established for several years. “

Faced with a president who undoubtedly seeks to weaken institutions and dreams of setting up an authoritarian regime, the judiciary and the army seem to hesitate.

With pandemic out of control, army distances itself from Jair Bolsonaro
In Rio de Janeiro, a poster accuses Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of “genocide” for his management of the Covid-19 pandemic. © Ricardo Moraes, Reuters

Ultimately, it is the scale of the health crisis that could change the political destiny of Jair Bolsonaro. Indeed, according to some projections, the Covid-19 could kill 600,000 in Brazil by July (currently the death toll stands at more than 300,000) and it is likely that the country will become the epicenter. global pandemic. Several Latin American countries have also decided to close their border with Brazil, fearing the spread of several variants that have appeared in recent weeks.

When the time comes for assessments and accountability, it will then be time to question the loyalty of the military and the politicians who still support Jair Bolsonaro’s authoritarian project.

Indeed, on March 25, an ally of the Brazilian president, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, demanded “a complete reorientation of the policy of combating the pandemic”, otherwise the parliamentarians could have recourse “to bitter political remedies. “. A thinly veiled threat to launch impeachment proceedings against the ex-captain locked in the deadly denial of the Covid-19 epidemic.

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