By Lisandra Paraguassu and Gabriel Stargardter
BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -Brazil will replace the three heads of its armed forces, the Defense Ministry said on Tuesday, as Latin America’s biggest nation, already roiled by the pandemic, faced a growing crisis between President Jair Bolsonaro and the military.
The departure of Brazil’s three top military commanders comes a day after Bolsonaro’s most dramatic cabinet overhaul since taking power, included the shock departure of his defense minister. The ministry said the heads of the army, navy and air force would be replaced, without giving details in a statement.
Their exits underline the scale of the political and public health crises afflicting Brazil, which has become the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. They also reveal a stark shift in relations between Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, and the career officers running the armed forces.
Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has placed current and former military officials throughout all levels of his government, leading to concerns that the military’s reputation may be tarnished by its affiliations with his administration.
Bolsonaro’s pressure on top military officials for public displays of their political support ultimately soured relations and triggered the dramatic fallout this week, according to people familiar with the matter.
Sources said that military brass were already unhappy with the role of former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty general widely blamed for failures to procure vaccines and control the COVID-19 death toll. Bolsonaro replaced Pazuello last week.
While Bolsonaro has railed against lockdowns, sowed doubts on vaccines and pushed unproven ‘miracle’ cures, the military has taken the outbreak very seriously.
In an interview this week adding to tensions with Bolsonaro, the army’s top health official said 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.
“The army is extremely traumatized by the experience with Pazuello and decided to leave the front lines of the government, not just to preserve the army as a state institution, but also to save it from being written off as falling in line,” said Leonardo Barreto, the director of Vector Análise.
“It’s very clear to the army that it has a lot to lose in this process.”
The Defense Ministry said the decision to remove the three military chiefs was made in a morning meeting with incoming Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto and his predecessor, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, whose surprise replacement was announced on Monday.
Azevedo e Silva had told confidants he felt uncomfortable in government and that he was facing pressure from the president for the armed forces to show him greater loyalty, sources said.
“Bolsonaro wanted the armed forces more involved in the government. He wanted public declarations of support. (Azevedo e Silva) refused,” said a person briefed on their discussions.
After his departure, Azevedo e Silva spoke with several Supreme Court justices, who wanted to sound him out on the risk for constituional threats ahead, sources said. One of them said that after those conversations, the justices came away convinced the military would avoid aggravating any political crises.
Under mounting pressure to slow a pandemic that has killed over 300,000 Brazilians, Bolsonaro made six cabinet changes on Monday in the biggest ministerial reshuffle to date.
Three ministers left the government, including Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, a China hawk whose departure followed mounting criticism from lawmakers of his failure to guarantee additional COVID-19 vaccine supplies from Beijing and Washington.
Bolsonaro seized on the loss of one of his most loyal allies to shore up support in his cabinet, putting his chief of staff in charge of the Defense Ministry and placing a federal police officer close to his family in charge of the Justice Ministry.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de JaneiroAdditional reporting by Eduardo Simoes in Sao PauloEditing by Brad Haynes, Jonathan Oatis and Steve Orlofsky)