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Bolsonaro’s Grand Strategy Following Brazil's Cabinet Reshuffle

07 May 2021
By Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann
President Jair Bolsonaro and Minister for Defence Walter Souza Braga Netto attend an Air Force ceremony. Source: Sergeant Johnson Barros / CECOMSAER

Leaders across the world are increasingly under pressure to deliver strategies to deal with the deadly virus. Brazil’s recent cabinet reshuffle comes as the summation of several events that have been unfolding since May last year.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, regarded by his base as “the myth,” is known for his unrelenting defiance towards state-led lockdowns and the dangers presented by the virus. The widespread chaos caused by Brazil’s uncontrolled disease spread led to an ongoing institutional crisis, triggered by Bolsonaro and his far-right base. Although received by the international community and analysts with surprise, the close relationship between the Bolsonaro administration and Brazil’s military is raising the eyebrows of the international community eyebrows. The cabinet reshuffle is intertwined with a recalibrated ministry, deserving close attention for those who cherish democratic rights and freedoms.

Past attempts at disrupting constitutional order

Last year, Brazilians witnessed anti-democratic protests throughout the country, with Bolsonaro joining these demonstrations in Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia. In these protests, Bolsonaro not only incited his base to subvert the constitutional stay-at-home order, he did not shy away from a possible military intervention. Several protests had violent outcomes, with reports of journalists being verbally and physically attacked. These were coupled with Bolsonaro’s increasing radicalisation and ongoing assaults to Brazil’s free press, and personal attacks towards journalists. Bolsonaro did not shy away from verbally attacking journalists in press conferences and yelling at the press to “shut up.”

In May 2020, Brazil’s political temperature soared, following a Supreme Court request to access Bolsonaro’s mobile phone as part of a corruption investigation. In an unprecedented move since Brazil’s democratisation in the 1980’s, Bolsonaro defied court orders to surrender his phone and threatened to send the military to the streets and “interfere directly” by shutting down the Supreme Court and Congress. Former Defence Minister Augusto Heleno, of centre-right political leaning, pacified Bolsonaro stating “it’s not time for that.”

In a ministerial video leaked to the press in May 2020, Bolsonaro hinted at a constitutional rupture through a military intervention: “We all want to follow article 142 of the Constitution…And if there is the need, of any of the branches of government, right? We can ask the armed forces to intervene to reinstate order in Brazil.” Although anti-democracy protests have cooled off, Bolsonaro’s authoritarian posturing continued. Bolsonaro declared the military to be above Brazil’s constitution. He made assurances that the military will not follow “absurd orders” and that he will not give in to “attempts to seize power by another power of the Republic, contrary to the laws, or on account of political judgements.”

Bolsonaro’s “grand plan” and the cabinet reshuffle

The timing of Bolsonaro’s cabinet reshuffle was charged with symbolism. It occurred on 29 March, only two days before the anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 military dictatorship. In past years, Bolsonaro celebrated this date, declaring: “This is the date the military saved Brazil from becoming another Cuba…March 31 is our day of freedom.” But a key issue leading to Bolsonaro’s cabinet reshuffle was his failed attempt to pass legislation expanding executive powers during the pandemic. If approved, this new law would expand significantly the powers of the Brazilian president, operating similarly to martial law. In such a case, the president would directly interfere in public as well as private affairs, with powers to take hold of public property, and to command civil and military forces to act on behalf of the federal government. Last but not least, this bill would give the president powers to enact laws to be enforced throughout Brazil’s federation, bypassing the horizontal separation of powers. Brazil’s lower house members deemed this law an attempted coup d’etat. Bolsonaro’s recalibrated ministry was announced shortly after the legislation was rejected by Congress.

The ministerial appointments include six new ministers, with three closely aligned ideologically with Bolsonaro. However, the changes of greater significance are the new minster for foreign affairs, Carlos Alberto Franco França, and Brazil’s new minister for defence, Walter Souza Braga Netto. These nonpartisan appointments were meticulously calculated. They will increase Brazil’s international political leverage and patch up Brazil’s relations with China.

Carlos Alberto Franco França is a career diplomat and not a Bolsonaro loyalist. He replaces the controversial Ernesto Araujo in the foreign affairs portfolio. Araujo is closely aligned with Bolsonaro and runs the anti-globalism blog Metapolitica. He is also a follower of Brazil’s far-right ideologue Olavo de Carvalho, who upholds anti-science views. His 2020 blog article “Here comes the communist virus” blames a globalist conspiracy, and China, for the pandemic. Araujo and Bolsonaro’s strong anti-China narrative soured Brazil-China relations, with many deeming China’s delay in coronavirus assistance to Brazil a by-product of this anti-China narrative. Delayed imports are holding back Brazil’s Butantan Institute’s domestic production of coronavirus vaccines, costing many lives. With out-of-control coronavirus cases and deaths, Brazil had to recalibrate its relationship with China, making Araujo’s position untenable.

Yet another key political manoeuvre is the appointment of Brazil’s new minister for health, appointed weeks before the cabinet reshuffle. Dr Marcelo Queiroga is a Brazilian cardiologist, and not a Bolsonaro loyalist. Queiroga’s appointment signals a cautious strategic move, distancing the Bolsonaro administration from ideologically aligned ministers to deal with one of the greatest public health emergencies in Brazil’s history. The previous minister for health, General Eduardo Pazuello, is a close Bolsonaro ally and a former army officer with no medical training. He was blamed for the mishandling of vaccine distributions throughout the country. Pazuello liberated Brazil’s full stock of coronavirus vaccines before further inputs arrived from China for domestic production.

However, Brazil’s new minister for defence, Braga Netto,  has raised concerns domestically. He is a Bolsonaro loyalist and represents far-right ideals within Brazil’s military. His predecessor, Augusto Heleno of centre-right political leaning, managed to hold back Bolsonaro’s past calls for a military intervention. Heleno supports the view that the military should not meddle into politics. The sacking of Heleno, and Braga Netto’s appointment shocked parts of Brazil’s military, leading to the resignation of the leaders of Brazil’s three army branches, the Navy, Army, and Air Force – something not seen since Brazil’s re-democratisation.

It now appears that it will be more difficult for Bolsonaro to stage a coup d’etat. The military resignations signal a political defeat of anti-democratic forces. But will Bolsonaro give up on his attempts to disrupt Brazil’s institutional order? With a new minister for defence closely aligned with Bolsonaro’s far-right views, there are growing fears that Braga Netto will actively work towards the politicisation of Brazil’s military, particularly of those from lower ranks.

In a country marred by military interference in politics throughout the First Republic, the increasing politicisation of Brazil’s military should be seen as a matter of concern. After the collective trauma of Brazil’s 1964 military coup and the re-democratisation process, the military meddling in Brazil’s politics was believed to be history. The Bolsonaro administration shows the military still plays a role in Brazil’s political consciousness. And in Bolsonaro’s grand strategy, the politicisation of the military might unleash Brazil’s old authoritarian forces, to the demise of Brazil’s democratic institutions and freedoms.

Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann is a Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Laws with First Class Honours from the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro and a Graduate Diploma of International Relations and Security Studies from Curtin University, Western Australia. She is a Brazilian political analyst and has written extensively in this field. Her research interests include Brazilian politics and society, Latin American politics, populism and nationalism, women in the global south, gender, politics and religion.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.