Bolsonaro's military backers nervous about public opinion amid coronavirus pandemic

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia on May 12, 2020.



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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's dependence on the military to govern is grating on the military itself.

Interviews with a dozen active-duty and retired high-ranking officers show members of the Armed Forces, who initially viewed joining their comrade in office as a chance to shape policy after years on the sidelines, now worry his erratic behavior and a spiraling public health crisis could turn public opinion against them. While the military isn't about to split with the administration, there's growing push-back across the ranks, including officers within the government, to define clearer boundaries.

"Having military in the government can't be confused with having the institutional support of the Armed Forces," Ret. General Sergio Etchegoyen, who was Brazil's top security official under Bolsonaro's predecessor, said in an interview. "That lack of understanding is generating discomfort."

Over a third of Bolsonaro's cabinet hails from the military, which now plays a greater role in government than at any other time since Brazil's brutal dictatorship ended in the 1980s. Known as the "Presidential Palace Generals," they include the active-duty general serving as health minister and the retired four-star general who is vice president. Bolsonaro himself is a former army captain. And thousands more soldiers and officers also work in lower-level government jobs, according to Brazil's Audit Court.

Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes took to live TV on July 14 and accused the Armed Forces of associating itself with a genocide as roughly 7,000 people die each week from the coronavirus while Bolsonaro argues against quarantines. At 2.66 million cases and almost 92,500 deaths, Brazil trails only the U.S. as the world's worst hot spot.

The Presidential Palace declined to comment for this article.

The active-duty and retired officers interviewed, some of whom asked for anonymity, say a main concern is that close ties to Bolsonaro risk tarnishing a carefully rebuilt image as defenders of democracy. The Armed Forces is consistently named one of Brazil's most trusted institutions, according to Datafolha polls. They go on peace-keeping missions abroad, help quell violence in gang-controlled neighborhoods and guarantee security at major events.

A key role many army officials are now playing is trying to ease tension over some of Bolsonaro's most controversial moves and forge valuable political alliances. When investors threatened in July to pull funding if the Amazon wasn't protected from illegal logging and fires, it was Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired general, who promised to combat deforestation.

Ret. General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz is among ranking officers openly voicing growing unease with the more extreme elements of the administration and the blurring of government branches. Santos Cruz served almost a half century in the army and led peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Africa, but he only lasted six months in Bolsonaro's cabinet. He was fired last year as government secretary, which acts as a liaison in Congress, for clashing with the president's sons and calling for moderation. He argues that "radical ideological groups end up dragging down the Army's image."

"The Armed Forces have amassed a lot of prestige in the eyes of the population; they transfer that prestige to the government by participating in it," Santos Cruz said in an interview. "Conversely, the Armed Forces may be seen as responsible for the administration's failures."

The Health Ministry has turned into a flash point in the discussion. General Eduardo Pazuello took over the ministry in mid-May after former health chief Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a doctor who pushed for fast social-distancing measures, was fired for publicly sparring with his jobs-first boss. Mandetta's replacement, Nelson Teich, who was also a doctor, quit after just 29 days when Bolsonaro wanted him to issue a blanket blessing on the use of chloroquine.

Once in charge, Pazuello quickly obliged, recommending the controversial malarial drug and backing off calls for quarantines. In the months since, Pazuello has also recruited at least nine military officials to fill top slots vacated by health experts, bringing the total to at least 20 within the agency.

Raul Jungmann, who served as defense minister under the previous administration, said Pazuello's role leading the coronavirus fight while still an active-duty general is causing "tension and duress" among the ranks. Fellow generals are demanding Pazuello switch to reserve duty or quit his post at the ministry, according to the interviews with officers. Vice President Mourao, in an interview with news website UOL on July 15, hinted that Bolsonaro may replace him.

"The army is fighting a rear guard to disengage its image from the Bolsonaro government," said Octavio Amorim Neto, a political scientist specializing in civil-military relations, who teaches at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, one of Brazil's top universities, in Rio de Janeiro. "Once the pandemic hit, they began to see their adventure of returning to the center of politics as extremely costly."

The health ministry didn't respond to requests for comment.

Besides Mendes, two other Supreme Court justices have slammed the military for enabling Bolsonaro's authoritarian impulses. They accuse the president of trying to undermine democratic checks and balances as his family is dogged by multiple graft probes. Bolsonaro has said the investigations are politically motivated and that he and his allies have done nothing wrong.

Some of the active commanders interviewed also pushed back on the notion that divisions in government are being breached or that the military has any intention of taking power.

"The Armed Forces, being state institutions, support the current government as was done in all previous governments," Defense Minister Ret. General Fernando Azevedo said.

But the president himself has threatened to directly disobey court orders and joined rowdy rallies calling for a military intervention outside the Supreme Court's headquarters in Brasilia. His son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, told a far-right website that an institutional "rupture" was only a matter of time after federal police raided dozens of properties associated with influential government allies in May.

In many ways, it was only natural that Bolsonaro would lean so heavily on the military while in office, said Ret. Army General Paulo Chagas, who stumped for the president in his 2018 campaign. With no major party affiliation and snubbed by the nation's business and intellectual elite, the long-time congressman turned to his brothers in arms to help him govern. "He needed people he could trust," Chagas said.

In the end, the Armed Forces, which hoped to set a steady course for Bolsonaro's administration, has instead been deployed to "solve the problems of the most radical Bolsonaro factions," said Amorim Neto, the civil-military relations specialist.

"Society can't comprehend who's governing and who's serving in the Armed Forces," said Perpetua Almeida, a deputy in the lower house who proposed a bill baring active-duty military from taking posts in the administration. "The person responsible for that confusion is President Bolsonaro."