The appointment of the former Brazilian army chief of health as the new commander of the service is an attempt by President Jair Bolsonaro to heal a rift created by the sacking of the defense minister and the subsequent removal of the top generals of all three military branches, analysts said Thursday.
General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira, in charge of the army’s human resources, was named army chief on Wednesday after the leaders of the Brazilian army, navy and air force hastily departed. The three men were evicted the day after Bolsonaro sacked retired Army General Fernando Azevedo e Silva as defense minister.
This week’s events were not transparent as neither the President nor the Defense Department explained what caused the change in leadership. Military and political experts said the unexpected shots, which some referred to as a “bomb”, were in part the result of commanders’ reluctance to serve Bolsonaro’s political interests.
The reshuffle sparked a deep – if brief – crisis within the military. Never since the return of democracy in 1985 has a president sacked all the leaders of the three branches of the military, analysts said. The move caused discomfort and great uncertainty about the future of the Brazilian armed forces as the far-right president grapples with declining popularity and COVID-19 battles the country.
But the opening up of Nogueira as army chief was widely viewed as an attempt by the president to ease tensions.
“The choice was to lower the tone,” said Juliano Cortinhas, who coordinates the international security research and study group at the University of Brasilia.
Within the military, Nogueira has a reputation for being a conscientious and reliable officer. He’s also the man behind the military’s contingency plan, which is based on social distancing.
In a rare interview with Correio Braziliense on March 28, Nogueira praised the results of the measures he had taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus among military personnel and said he was preparing for a third wave of infections.
“The numbers are relatively good compared to the population in general because of the prevention we have,” said Nogueira. “If that improved in Brazil, the number of people infected would likely be lower.”
The lengthy interview was described as very dissatisfied by experts and the media. Bolsonaro has spoken out strongly against the imposition of strict health measures for the pandemic by states and communities, arguing that its economic damage will be more damaging than disease.
Brazil is currently struggling with a violent resurgence in coronavirus cases. The country reported a new daily high of nearly 4,000 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to over 66,000 in March. That’s more than twice as much as last July, Brazil’s worst month in the pandemic.
“We have to be ready in Brazil. We can’t waver, ”said Nogueira in an interview. “We have to work, improve the structure of our hospitals, have more beds and staff so that we can react when there is a stronger wave.”
In the list of possible candidates for the top post in the army, he was one of the oldest active-duty generals who preserve military traditions and hierarchies.
For Cortinhas, a professor at the University of Brasilia, the changes in the military will not fundamentally change her relationship with Bolsonaro, at least in the short term.
“There has been a name change, the game continues,” he said. “The military continues to play a very important role in the Bolsonaro government.”
However, other experts said the crisis had split the ranks.
Eduardo Munhoz Svartman, president of the Brazilian Defense Studies Association, stressed the distinction between active military personnel – a contingent of around 300,000 men and women – and retired members.
Those who have entered the Bolsonaro administration, including the new defense minister, former General Walter Braga Netto, are usually retired military personnel and support the president.
But among military personnel on active duty “there is a section that does not want the armed forces to be used as a tool by the president,” said Svartman, who also teaches at the federal university of Rio Grande do Sul. “There is a growing internal polarization.”
Some active-duty generals are also keen to distance themselves from Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. Most of the 320,000 deaths in Brazil occurred under the supervision of General Eduardo Pazuello, who was Federal Minister of Health from May until last month. Pazuello is under investigation by a federal court for his handling of the collapse of the public health system in the Amazonian city of Manaus.
While tensions have subsided, João Roberto Martins Filho, a military expert, said that things could never be the same between Bolsonaro and generals on active duty due to the distance of the three commanders.
“He crossed a dangerous line and lost,” said Martins Filho. “That left a scar.”