BRASILIA (Reuters) -Brazil’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday named new commanders of its armed forces, a day after the previous three chiefs were sacked as part of President Jair Bolsonaro’s unprecedented attempt to meddle in the military.
Paulo Sergio Nogueira de Oliveira will take over the army, Almir Garnier the navy and Carlos Almeida Baptista Júnior the air force, said Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto in his first news conference since assuming his new role this week.
As he announced the names, Braga Netto said the armed forces remained faithful to their constitutional mission.
“The military has not been found wanting in the past and will not be found wanting when the country needs it,” he said.
All three military officers have lengthy service, easing fears among some analysts that Bolsonaro might choose more junior personnel more willing to politicize the armed forces.
Nogueira de Oliveira, who was the army’s top health official, is a surprise choice after he drew Bolsonaro’s scorn for publicly celebrating how the force had managed to keep COVID-19 death rates to 0.13% – well below the 2.5% among the general population. He also advocated social distancing, urged mask use and warned of a likely third wave of infections.
Bolsonaro in stark contrast has railed against lockdowns, sowed doubts on vaccines and pushed unproven “miracle” cures.
The naming of the new commanders comes on the anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 coup, which led to 21 years of military rule in the country.
Braga Netto released a statement on Tuesday in which he described the events of March 31, 1964, when the military took power in Brazil, as a “movement” rather than a coup. He said it should be “understood and celebrated” as part of Brazil’s “historic trajectory.”
The abrupt changes in the armed forces, following a shock Cabinet reshuffle on Monday, underline the scale of the political and public health crises afflicting Brazil, which is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also mark a stark shift in relations between Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who has stacked his government with current and former military personnel, and the career officers running the armed forces.
On Wednesday, six potential presidential candidates, including Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria and Bolsonaro’s former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, wrote an open letter in defense of democracy.
“Men and women of this country who appreciate FREEDOM, whether civilians or military, regardless of party affiliation, color, religion, gender and origin, must be united in the defense of DEMOCRATIC CONSCIOUSNESS. We will defend Brazil,” they wrote, without mentioning Bolsonaro.
(Reporting by Leonardo BenassattoWriting by Stephen EisenhammerEditing by Brad Haynes, David Gregorio and Diane Craft)