Brazil: Armed Forces chiefs resign after clash with Bolsonaro

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SAO PAULO

In a joint decision taken after a series of closed-door meetings held over two days, the heads of Brazil’s army, navy and air force announced their resignations Tuesday.

The decision by Army Commander Edson Pujol, Navy Commander Ilques Barbosa Junior and Air Force Commander Antonio Carlos Bermudez comes a day after President Jair Bolsonaro discharged Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva.

The joint resignation is viewed as a response to Bolsonaro’s recurring attempts to force military involvement in politics. It also marks the first time in Brazil’s history that the three commanders of the military have left office at the same time over a disagreement with a sitting president.

According to reports, the new Defense Minister, Walter Braga Netto, met with the three commanders in what was described as a “tense meeting marked by harsh phrases and slaps on the table.” Braga Netto disclosed Bolsonaro’s order to fire them, but they had already taken the decision to leave.

According to reports, during the closed-door meeting, there were several disputes over how the dismissal was made. One of the officers was said to have harshly questioned Braga Netto when he recalled that the Armed Forces are state institutions not “belonging” to any government. In recent demonstrations, however, Bolsonaro has referred to the Army as “my Army,” generating friction.

The three military chiefs hastened to affirm that there will be no support on the part of the military for any “coup adventure” by Bolsonaro. They are said to be looking for a way out of what is being regarded as the most serious crisis in the military since 1977, when then-President Ernesto Geisel, during the Brazilian military dictatorship, dismissed then Army Minister Sylvio Frota.

In an interview with a major news site, Vice President Hamilton Mourao, himself a reserve general in the Brazilian Army, rejected any risk of institutional breakdowns with the change in chiefs.

“You can [name]whoever you want. There is no institutional rupture. The Armed Forces will always be guided by legality, always,” Mourao said.

The reasons for the commanders’ departure are said to be related to episodes in which Bolsonaro tried to get the military to take positions on political issues that are sensitive to the country. Active and reserve generals confirmed that information to the press.

The Army commander, whose departure from office was announced today, had been blocking those attempts from Bolsonaro. Now former Defense Minister Azevedo e Luna, meanwhile, had been trying to protect Pujol while remaining loyal to the president.

Bolsonaro insisted, for example, that Pujol manifest himself publicly with “messages of support” on social networks, defending the president’s denialist speech and stances on the coronavirus pandemic. The Army chief, however, had made it clear that he would not mix his military position with national policy. One military source assured that Pujol was Bolsonaro’s “target” and that the two others initially would leave as a gesture of solidarity.

One recent episode in particular angered Bolsonaro. During an official presidential visit, Pujol refused to shake hands with him, offering his elbow as a security measure against COVID-19. Bolsonaro is often seen at events without wearing a mask and attracting crowds.​​​​​​​

Another event that generated dissatisfaction in the Armed Forces was Bolsonaro’s participation in a last year’s demonstration in front of Army headquarters calling for the reinstatement of Institutional Act No. 5 — a decree enacted in 1968 by the military dictatorship to give the president powers to dissolve Congress, impeach politicians and suspend constitutional rights — in addition to seeking to shut down the Supreme Court.

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