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Coronavirus disaster drives Bolsonaro to play politics with the navy

April 27, 2021, 2:51 p.m.

In an effort to weather a political storm sparked by one of the world's worst coronavirus outbreaks, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro decided to rely on a well-known ally, the military, which sealed his election three years ago. After Bolsonaro played a loyalist at the helm of the Department of Defense last month who was part of a spate of cabinet replacements that sparked the simultaneous resignation of the chiefs of the Brazilian army, navy and air force, Bolsonaro's approval rates fell to all-time lows, dragging his policies behind him fate is increasingly in danger.

Bolsonaro's recent attempt to concentrate power after the elections were just over a year away has raised concerns that he is seeking further control over the security services, a bloc he relied heavily on to rise to the top of Brazil's office.

"I think Bolsonaro saw what happened to [former US President Donald] Trump as something that could happen to him," said Thomas Shannon, a former US ambassador to Brazil, who last came third in 2018 The State Department official was trying to ensure that he had full control of the security services on the way to the elections. He wants to make sure he has people in positions of authority, especially in the armed forces, who remain loyal to him as president. "

Experts doubt that Bolsonaro could instruct the security forces to place his bids. His pursuit of loyalty within the armed forces, however, comes about as he continued to lose support ahead of the 2022 election, which may run against popular former left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The eagerly awaited duel could exacerbate a crisis in civil-military relations, experts fear.

A former army captain who has repeatedly referred to the Brazilian armed forces as "my army", Bolsonaro has accepted more military personnel into his government than any other government since Brazil restored democracy more than three decades ago after a 21-year military dictatorship. Though former U.S. officials still see continuity in the relationship, some in Brasília are concerned that Washington didn't hit Bolsonaro badly enough to get political loyalists into top jobs – including in the armed forces.

"Of course the Pentagon has bigger fish to fry," said Mariana Kalil, professor of geopolitics in Brazil’S Was college on the political conflicts in Myanmar and Hong Kong. But she added that the Biden administration was more concerned with keeping Brazil's foreign policy in line with Washington than with Bolsonaro's political cleansing. "You are pragmatic," she said of the US position.

But even if the armed forces are not there to save Bolsonaro, the president's decision to involve them more deeply in politics could mark a throwback from Brazil's nearly 40 years of democratic progress since the fall of its military-led dictatorship in 1985 .

Bolsonaro "has some difficulty understanding what it means to be in command in chief," Kalil said. "He thought the armed forces would be available as part of his political agenda."

However, the resignations showed that the Brazilian armed forces still have a stiff back in dealing with political pressure, former top officials in Brasília told foreign policy.

"I don't think the armed forces will become the president's Praetorian Guard," said Celso Amorim, who served as foreign and defense minister under three Brazilian presidents, including Lula da Silva. In addition, Bolsonaro's support within the financial system, businessmen, the judiciary and the press continues to weaken, experts said.

Some in Brazil believe that given the fragmentation of Bolsonaro's power, military intervention in his support is unlikely. "Even if he can carry out a coup with the armed forces, that would not be sustainable," said Kalil.

And the shaking up has already had an impact. Instead of bringing the armed forces closer to Bolsonaro, the cabinet reshuffle that led to the withdrawal of military chiefs has sparked outrage among the highest echelons of the military. The outgoing defense minister and armed forces commanders reportedly refused to comply with the president's request for more political support and sent Bolsonaro a message that the armed forces would "not embark on undemocratic adventures". The president's move has reportedly sparked resentment among many service members.

Now the military is beginning to realize that "there are real reputational risks that the military has taken because it is now heavily linked to a government that has failed to deal with the pandemic," said Anya Prusa, a senior official at Wilson Center's Brazilian Institute. In one such case, Bolsonaro's former health minister, General Eduardo Pazuello, an active official, is currently the target of a Senate investigation into the federal government's mismanagement of the pandemic. Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão said this week that he had encouraged the former health minister to withdraw from the army over the ministry's response to the pandemic.

While the higher echelons of the military are unlikely to be accompanied by a coup, Bolsonaro still enjoys considerable grassroots respect. With the upcoming elections on the horizon and increasing political polarization in Brazil, however, Kalil fears that a Trump-like scenario could emerge if Bolsonaro loses his re-election, especially if those in the lower ranks of the police and the armed forces refuse to vote for the election results accept .

On the other hand, the United States must find a way to deal with a politically polarized ally in South America – with few good options.

"Especially if Lula is a candidate, it will polarize Brazilian society further," said Shannon. “Brazil is imitating the United States. Our policies are similar. A country that was largely ruled from the center is now being pushed to the limit. In these circumstances, it is best for the US to get out of the way. "

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