It is not surprising that the government of Jair Bolsonaro is in crisis. Setting aside his ruinous response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the radically reactionary leader of the largest country in Latin America has never displayed the ability or desire to use political means to benefit anyone but those closest to him. Still, the scale and rapidity of the upheaval this week has raised concerns that Brazilians may soon confront a full-blown political meltdown on top of the public health disaster that has been unfolding for several months.
On Monday, Ernesto Araújo, the foreign minister, resigned. His tenure had been marked by brash self-righteous rhetoric delivered without a glimmer of grace or confidence. Indeed, Araújo became known for masking his palpable insecurity with long, confusing references to Latin and Greek antiquity. Aráujo embraced conspiracy theories and far-right ideas that endeared him to the constellation of far-right governments that emerged around the world in recent years, particularly the Trump administration in Washington, but failed to deliver many tangible results for the Brazilian people (this is why two years ago I called Araújo “the worst diplomat in the world”).
Most tragically for the Brazilian people, Araújo’s ineptitude and instinct to ingratiate himself with Donald Trump at all costs estranged his country from much of the rest of the world just as a global pandemic made international cooperation more urgent than ever. Last Wednesday, several senators begged the foreign minister to resign, calling it a necessary precondition for Brazil to effectively engage the global community as the novel coronavirus claims more and more lives. When he finally threw in the towel, Araújo blamed “a false and hypocritical narrative erected against [him] in the service of shadowy national and foreign interests”. The response to his resignation, however, was overwhelmingly positive.
But any hope that the administration might correct its exasperating course was quickly dashed by news that other cabinet members were resigning as well. Suddenly, it seemed something larger and potentially more ominous was afoot in Brasília as Bolsonaro shook up his administration in response to rising discontent. All told, six cabinet members would be replaced by the end of the day, with Fernando Azevedo e Silva, the defence minister, being the most important.
Azevedo is a general, one of several top-level military men whom Bolsonaro has surrounded himself with in government. Upon his departure, Azevedo thanked the president for the chance to serve and applauded himself for having “preserved the armed forces as state institutions”. This cryptic self-praise begs an uncomfortable question: had someone been trying to use the military for personal ends? Why else would Azevedo feel the need to tout its apolitical nature, which has mostly been a given since the end of military rule in 1985?
In response to Azevedo’s dismissal, the heads of all three branches of the armed forces issued a joint resignation, an unprecedented development in Brazilian history. Much remains uncertain but it seems clear that the armed forces are increasingly conflicted about their proximity to Bolsonaro’s government and to the president himself.
Events of recent days have recalled a troubling history of military involvement in Brazilian government. In 1971, seven years after a military coup ushered in a repressive anti-communist dictatorship, political scientist Alfred C Stepan observed that “in many developing countries not only is the military not isolated from the tensions experienced by the general population and therefore not able to act as an integrating force, but the military is itself an element in the policy that may transform latent tensions into overt crises”.
The fact that the regime was intensely political is often overlooked by nostalgic apologists such as Bolsonaro, who see the dictatorship as exemplary rather than as a dark chapter in the past century.
By stacking his government with military men, Bolsonaro has made it so that political crises are by definition military crises, and vice versa. This kind of cross-pollination is dangerous and the military bears considerable responsibility for allowing it to happen. If, for example, Bolsonaro clashes with a cabinet secretary who is also a high-ranking member of the military – his health minister, fired less than 10 days ago, was also a general – is the public to assume that the dispute portends a deeper misalignment between the commander in chief and the armed forces under his control?
This kind of institutional blurring would be problematic even if the head of state were not a far-right bigot with authoritarian inclinations who longs for the days of military rule. By casting so many military men in governmental roles, Bolsonaro finds himself with inordinate political power over the armed forces. In his seminal work, Stepan also lamented a tendency by some to “underemphasise the degree to which a military organisation is permeated and shaped by outside political pressures”. The current military brass has insisted, explicitly and implicitly, that it has no appetite for authoritarian adventures of the kind Bolsonaro makes no secret of working towards.
The extent to which the lower ranks of the armed forces would follow Bolsonaro across the Rubicon, however, remains something of an open question. During the dictatorship, “the troops themselves, for their part, were kept in almost absolute political passivity”, historian Maud Chirio says in her 2018 book Politics in Uniform: Military Officers and Dictatorship in Brazil, 1960-80. But now there is concern support for Bolsonaro runs so deep among rank-and-file soldiers and police – the police are militarised in Brazil – that escalating tensions between Bolsonaro and the generals might precipitate a crisis of authority over security forces.
Another troubling development this week involved a police officer in the state of Bahia who had to be shot and killed by his colleagues after threatening to open fire on them in an apparent psychotic episode. Almost immediately, Bolsonaro supporters in government and on social media depicted the episode as an egregious example of government overreach, the felled officer described as a patriotic martyr fighting back against lockdown measures imposed by the state governor.
Governor Rui Costa, a member of the leftwing Workers’ party, has followed international guidelines in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. For that, the Bolsonaro shock troops sought to promote a mutiny. That threat has been neutralised for now, but one cannot help but wonder how much more abuse Brazilian institutions can take.
Bolsonaro is steeling himself for something. Whether it is politics as usual or something worse is a question he has deliberately raised. He has done nothing to reassure an anxious populace.
Andre Pagliarini is a lecturer in history and Latin American studies at Dartmouth College.