Bolsonaro’s Freezing Wake up Call

  • Three top military officials resigned in protest of Bolsonaro’s leadership.
  • Governmental institutions are positioned against Bolsonaro following Covid-19 failures.
  • Political gains and losses are driving Bolsonaro to unprecedented behaviours.
  • Sino-Latin relations, possible Brazilian openness.

Why is Bolsonaro’s Heat Level Freezing?

Answer: Three top military officials resigned in protest of Bolsonaro’s leadership.

A few weeks ago, three members of the top brass of the Brazilian military resigned their posts following President Bolsonaro’s impromptu cabinet reshuffle. Facing an ever worsening covid-19 crisis, Jair Bolsonaro took the unprecedented step of changing six different key cabinet positions, including known loyalists Ernesto Araujo and Fernando Azevedo e Silva. The ousting (yet to be confirmed as resignations) of the Foreign and Defence ministers respectively, prompted the heads of the Armed Forces, Navy, and Army to resign from the military. They released a statement pledging their allegiance to the constitution of Brazil, claiming that the military is an institution belonging to the state, and it would not be loyal to the president’s bidding. 

Amidst decreased legitimacy, Bolsonaro thought he could act recklessly and retain the support of the army. For Bolsonaro, appointing military officials to government positions was a way to distance the government from politics. Ironically, since Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985, the military had never been used so politically as he uses it, nor had the government had such a high level of influence over it. He is freezing because as a man who notoriously bolstered the military as a political tool in his confrontations with Congress and the Supreme Court, losing the support of its leaders so publicly is a hit on his status as an apolitical military alumnus.  

Who is changing Bolsonaro’s heat level?

Answer: Governmental institutions are positioned against Bolsonaro following Covid-19 failures.

After such efforts to reinforce Brazil’s army and secure its loyalty, the incongruous answer to this question is: the military. Such an unprecedented cabinet overhaul had already brought scrutiny to Bolsonaro, but such a public reprehension of his actions sent him into freezing political ground. Moreover, the military is not alone, it is following a broader trend of institutional mutiny. Bolsonaro’s actions have generated recrimination from important stakeholders in Brazil like Congress, the Supreme Court, and—a critical stakeholder in any democracy—voters. 

An uncoordinated and confusing approach to the coronavirus pandemic threatens Bolsonaro with talks of impeachment within Congress. The power of Congress over Brazilian governance has grown over the past two decades. Brazilian democracy is increasingly protected from the aspirations of dictatorial leaders such as Bolsonaro, as Congress acts as a counterbalancing power to any presidential agenda. Its influence was solidified in the successful 2016 impeachment of former president Dilma Roussef.  

Bolsonaro now faces possible charges of willful negligence due to his coronavirus (non)response. Over the last year he was constantly at odds with Brazil’s own health authorities and repeatedly challenged the lockdown measures of Congress (he participated in the people’s protest against his own government). Bolsonaro must now scramble to maintain legitimacy within the Senate if he wishes to remain in power as elections approach — and we will see he does.   

Talking about elections, his electoral stakes have never been higher. In recent years, the Supreme Court of Brazil gained a moral high ground as an objective judicial body with the conviction of former president Lula after Operation Car Wash. Following the scandal, the Supreme Court assumed the role of government watchdog and elevated itself above politics. Last month, however, they annulled his conviction, arguing that the judge who had presided over his case was not objective. This could be a sign of fairness from the court, but given the timing and lack of renewed conviction, it reads more as a setback in impartiality, favouring the left. Either way, the Supreme Court threw Lula back into the political arena. Bolsonaro could be preparing to not only confront the consequences of his failures but the reemergence of a notorious and loved leader of Brazil’s left-wing. 

What is driving Bolsonaro?

Answer: Political gains and losses are driving Bolsonaro to unprecedented behaviors.

We now see Bolsonaro threatened on two important fronts: Keeping power and winning reelection. He can’t do one without the other. Bolsonaro had managed the discontent of Brazilian people and businesses for the first nine months of the pandemic. That is, until stimulus money ran out. He is juggling health and economic crises in tandem with convincing the people that there is no pandemic to begin with. Part of the reason why he only hires military officials is his belief that the army is a pillar of order and efficiency, these are the same officials who failed to deliver united and effective strategies. Bolsonaro’s own ideologies are imploding, alienating his coalition, and if Lula decides to run in 2022, there is a great chance that Bolsonaro has won the election for him. 

Bolsonaro is now not only facing an economic and health crisis, but a political one as well. This means reversing course on several of the policies whose promises he had previously run on. All his efforts hereafter, including the cabinet reshuffle, are focused on making sure that the pandemic does not cost him the presidency. He is willing to bear the grunt of political losses, like doing away with loyalists like Araujo and Azevedo e Silva, if it means that he himself can stay in power. With failing vaccine negotiations, a collapsing healthcare system and a weakening economy, someone had to go, and it was not going to be him. 

The president has now embraced strategies he had rejected when his power went unquestioned. He supports a mass vaccination program, much of which is supplied by China, an unlikely partner due to Bolsonaro’s affinity for President Trump. Increased negotiations are a change of pace for Brazil, which could now see itself with future economic openness in order to mitigate the effects of its economic crisis. His unchanged domestic approach, like increased militarisation and reproach for covid-19 lockdown measures, is a mirage to his supporters. Externally, Bolsonaro finds himself between a rock and a hard place, and he is prioritizing his political career (or the good of the country, to give him the benefit of the doubt) by seeking out international collaboration. He may find Brazil with more change than he bargained for by the end of her healthcare crisis.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: sino-latin relations, possible Brazilian openness.

Biden, who was positioned to take a leading role in the region, refused to aid LATAM prior to securing the well-being of US Americans. More than this, the USA, the EU and the UK all saturated the market for the leading and most effective vaccines, leaving LATAM and other regions with scarce resources to mitigate their own crises.  

Bolsonaro customarily had shaky relations with China due to his affinity for President Trump, as well as repeatedly blaming the pandemic on China. Now Sinova’s CoronaVac vaccine is the main jab Brazilians are receiving along with AstraZeneca. China is filling the shoes of the United States where they could not through health diplomacy. This could very well show the beginning of a long-lasting economic partnership between not only Brazil, but LATAM and China, not to mention Brazilian involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The pandemic, particularly its course in powerful latin countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico is proving to be a catalyst for sino-latin relations. 

This is significant because it shows the possibility that where cooperation with the West has failed before, China can provide a new blueprint for regional development, one vaccine at a time. 

Francia Morales

Editor in Chief for Research and Analysis