The growing wedge between Bolsonaro and the military

and . Oct 28, 2020
The growing wedge between Bolsonaro and the military President Jair Bolsonaro during Aviator Day celebrations. Photo: Júlio Nascimento/PR

Last week, Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão welcomed the commanders of the three armed forces for an unscheduled meeting. While the idea of an off-agenda meeting is not out of the ordinary — especially with the VP being a retired Army general himself — the mood was decidedly abnormal on October 21. The heads of the Navy, Air Force, and Army were there to complain about the repeated public scoldings of the government’s military wing, particularly from whom they least expected it: President Jair Bolsonaro.

Hours before the meeting, Mr. Bolsonaro had revoked a decision made by Health Minister and Army General Eduardo Pazuello to sign a letter of intent to purchase 46 million doses of the CoronaVac — a potential Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Chinese lab Sinovac Biotech and the state government of São Paulo.

</p> <p>That same day, the president had driven to the hotel where Gen. Pazuello was isolating himself while battling a coronavirus infection, forcing him to appear in a <a href="">humiliating live broadcast on Facebook</a>, in which the Health Minister begrudgingly said: &#8220;it&#8217;s simple, [the president] gives the orders, the rest follow them.&#8221;</p> <p>In the view of Army General Edson Pujol, Fleet Admiral Ilques Barbosa Junior, and Air Lieutenant Brigadier Antonio Carlos Bermudez, Mr. Bolsonaro is treating his military cabinet members in an &#8220;unacceptable&#8221; way. They are concerned that the disregard displayed by the president could &#8220;tarnish the <a href="">public image of the Armed Forces</a>.&#8221;</p> <p>Vice President Mourão agreed, but said he couldn&#8217;t do anything to change the president&#8217;s demeanor — as he feels treated with the same &#8220;disrespect.&#8221; Eight separate sources confirmed the content of the October 21 meeting to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>This disregard has come as a surprise to the Armed Forces. While the center-left Workers&#8217; Party were in power in Brazil, senior military officers feared that they would lose their institutional prestige, as many members of the administration (including former President Dilma Rousseff herself) had taken up arms against the military during the dictatorship era.&nbsp;</p> <p>The rise of Jair Bolsonaro —&nbsp;a former Army captain from their own ranks, and who centered his political image entirely around his military past — was supposed to eliminate any such risk.</p> <p>Granted, there have <a href="">never been so many military representatives</a> within the federal government — over 6,000 according to the Federal Accounts Court — and the president has <a href="">cajoled the barracks</a> with a series of financial perks.&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, it is under Mr. Bolsonaro that the Armed Forces are receiving the heaviest criticism from the government.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="799" height="533" src="" alt="military chiefs brazil bolsonaro" class="wp-image-51927" srcset=" 799w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 799px) 100vw, 799px" /><figcaption>Army General Pujol (right) and Air Lieutenant Brigadier Bermudez: displeased with how the president treats the military. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR</figcaption></figure> <h2>&#8216;Friendly fire&#8217; hurt Bolsonaro military ministers&nbsp;</h2> <p>Military officers worry that the president&#8217;s &#8220;lack of etiquette&#8221; when dealing with his barracks-issued cabinet members is setting a wrong tone — and could soon turn the military wing into the administration&#8217;s whipping boys.&nbsp;</p> <p>One day after a poorly Mr. Pazuello was dragged out of bed to appear alongside the president on Facebook, embattled Environment Minister Ricardo Salles delivered his own blow below the waistline, taking to social media to call General Luiz Eduardo Ramos, the president&#8217;s Government Secretary, a <em>&#8220;</em><a href="">gossiper</a><em>.&#8221;</em></p> <p>The quarrel concerned the deployment of military troops to aid <a href="">fire-fighting missions in the Amazon and the Pantanal</a>. Gen. Ramos had told the press that the Environment Ministry was &#8220;putting all the pressure&#8221; on the generals.</p> <p>Before posting the message, Mr. Salles reportedly telephoned Gen. Ramos to insult him directly. &#8220;The general was deeply hurt and confided his grievances to [the president&#8217;s chief security officer] General Augusto Heleno, who then told President Bolsonaro,&#8221; one government official told<strong> The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Gen. Ramos even thought about resigning, after receiving no public backing from Mr. Bolsonaro.</p> <p>And this would not be the first time the president has sided — either overtly or tacitly — with members of the so-called radical ideological wing of his administration, to the detriment of military officers. His first Government Secretary, retired General Carlos Alberto Santos Cruz, was fired after being publicly — and violently&nbsp;—&nbsp;criticized by Olavo de Carvalho, a sort of <a href="">ideological guru for the Bolsonaro family</a>.</p> <p>&#8220;It is a generalized lack of respect. That gives you a diagnosis of the country&#8217;s current leadership,&#8221; Gen. Santos Cruz told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Generals cite another problem for the image of the Armed Forces: the president&#8217;s constant support of the 1964-1985 dictatorship. Earlier this year, Mr. Bolsonaro had to be talked down by his closest military advisers from the idea of <a href="">sending troops to close the Supreme Court</a>. Gen. Heleno was given the task of convincing the president that he must not &#8220;defend the return of military rule in the country.&#8221;</p> <h2>Getting out of the Health Ministry</h2> <p>Leading the Health Ministry during the worst pandemic of the past 100 years, Eduardo Pazuello is the highest-profile military officer within the government by some distance — and the only cabinet member still in active duty.&nbsp;</p> <p>His appointment was opposed by the heads of the Armed Forces, as they feared the military would become unwilling partners in Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">failed coronavirus response</a>. Moreover, Mr. Pazuello is subjected to an enhanced level of scrutiny due to his lack of a medical background, and two physicians were previously fired from the role for not going along with Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s Covid-19 denialism and <a href="">touting of &#8220;miracle&#8221; cures</a>.</p> <p>As one senior government official told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, &#8220;the president would rather have someone who obeys him rather than an expert who challenges his views.&#8221;</p> <p>Over the past week, Fleet Admiral Ilques Barbosa Junior — the head of the Brazilian Navy&nbsp;— has met with the government&#8217;s whips in Congress to find a way to replace Mr. Pazuello without the military taking any backlash. One idea is a major cabinet reshuffle in January — which would take the spotlight off a potential change in the Health Ministry.</p> <p>A <a href="">2019 survey</a> by pollster Datafolha showed the Armed Forces as the most-trusted public institution in Brazil, with a 42-percent approval rating. But, as they become ingrained within the Bolsonaro administration, their prestige gets increasingly tied to the success of an erratic president facing one of the most challenging moments in Brazilian recent history.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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