Armed Forces Commanders Resign in Protest Against Bolsonaro

The unprecedented military crisis is the biggest one since 1977, but uniforms are working to lower the heat

For the first time in history, three commanders of the Armed Forces have asked for joint resignation for disagreeing with the President of the Republic.

They have all reaffirmed that the military will not participate in any coup attempts, however, they are looking for an accommodation way out of this crisis, the biggest one in the area since the dismissal of the, then, Army Minister Sylvio Frota in 1977 by President Ernesto Geisel.

This Tuesday morning, Edson Leal Pujol (Army), Ilques Barbosa (Navy), and Antônio Carlos Bermudez (Air Force) made their positions available to the reserve general Walter Braga Netto, the new Minister of Defense.

Braga Netto attempted to dissuade them from following in the footsteps of his predecessor, also a reserve general, Fernando Azevedo, fired by Jair Bolsonaro on Monday (29), who was also present at the meeting.

Brazil's president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro (C) addresses the press flanked by newly appointed Brazilian Air Force Commander Antonio Carlos Moretti Bermudez (L), Brazilian Naval Forces Commander, Admiral Ilques Barbosa Junior (2-L), Fernando Azevedo e Silva, who was appointed as Defense Minister (2-R) and Brazilian Army Commander Edson Leal Pujol at the Aeronautics Command in Brasilia, on November 22, 2018. (Photo by Sergio LIMA / AFP) - AFP

There were moments of tension in the meeting, according to reports. Indeed, in the note issued by the Ministry of Defense, it says that the commanders will be replaced - and not that they had asked to leave.
It is a way for Bolsonaro to assert authority in a troubled moment, evoking the principle of hierarchy. While, at the same time, avoiding the amplification of the crisis.

At the meeting, according to reports made to Folha, the Navy commander had a moment of exaltation with the new defense minister, Braga Netto. Dissatisfied with Azevedo's dismissal, the admiral pointed out that the change may generate apprehension in the country and that it reflects badly on the Armed Forces.

The expectation at the moment is to have the current Ministry of Defense's general secretary, Admiral Almir Garnier Santos, appointed to command the Navy, and the military commander of the Northeast, General Marco Freire Gomes, to command the Army. For the Air Force, there are still no selected names.

The appointment of Freire Gomes, however, faces strong resistance in the Armed Forces, since there are six 4-star generals more senior than him in the military hierarchy. The military dome of the Palácio do Planalto has tried to convince the president to choose another name.

There have been reverberations. Generals of the Army High Command have stated that the pressure related to Pujol's leaving will alienate Bolsonaro from the Force, even more, going in the opposite direction of the proposed movement.

The uneasiness over the unexpected announcement of Azevedo's departure, who played the role of a pivot between the different military wings in the government, the active service, and the Judiciary, was too great.

The reason for the minister's brief dismissal was what his allies called an 'overstepping of the red line': Bolsonaro had been demanding political demonstrations favorable to government interests and support to the idea of enacting a state of defense to prevent lockdowns across the country.

The president stated publicly that "my army" would not allow such actions. Meanwhile, he was defeated in the Supreme Court in his intention to overturn restrictions in three units of the Federation, in an action that was not co-signed by the attorney general of the Union, José Levi - helping lead to his own downfall, also on Monday.

Facing measures by governors to try to restrict the circulation of the new coronavirus, which has already killed 310,000 people, has been the president's obsession since he capitulated to Governor João Doria (PSDB-SP) and embraced the cause of the vaccination.

The restrictions have less popular support than immunization, and the president believes that lockdowns and the like will further hamper his re-election plans due to the natural negative effect on the economy. His popularity has been falling.

He even compared the measures to a state of siege, an impropriety, but just the reference to an instrument of exception led the president of the Federal Supreme Court, Luiz Fux, to question his intentions.

In meetings on Monday, according to attendees, the three commanders agreed that it would be important to make a peaceful and controlled transition, with consensus on the names of the replacements.

There is the fear of agitation in the barracks, especially because on this Wednesday (31) it will complete 57 years of the coup that placed the military in power for over two decades, until 1985. The watchword is calming down the spirits.

The remembrance of Frota's 1977 episode is still vivid in the minds of the general officers, all of them graduated during the years close to the event.

However, there are differences: there was an open dictatorship by Geisel at the time, and Frota was opposed to that. In addition, he was a minister - the Defense portfolio would only be created in 1999, and remained with civilians in charge of it until 2018. The ministry, by the way, has grown accustomed to crisis: 5 of its 12 incumbents have so far left in somewhat troubled ways.

The commanders met with Azevedo this morning, in the Defense. Braga Netto talked to them afterward.

All of them are more senior than the minister, military jargon that means that they graduated from classes prior to his. This has a great weight in the hierarchical scheme of the Forces.

The most aggravated was Pujol, Bolsonaro's disaffection since last year, due to differences in the handling of the fight against the pandemic: while the president adopted a negationist agenda, the general offered him an elbow instead of a handshake. The president tried to remove him from command, without success due to the lack of support from Azevedo. Recently, he demanded a critical stand from the Supreme Federal Court, due to the restoration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's political rights. Azevedo and Pujol did not repeat the mistakes of former commander Eduardo Villas Bôas, who generated a stir when he pressed the court in 2018 not to grant a habeas corpus to the former president, which paved the way to his 580 days in prison.

Pujol was also tough to state clearly that the military had to stay out of politics, at the end of 2020. The dissatisfaction of the active service with the management of General Eduardo Pazuello, who was not on the reservation, of the Health Ministry was another source of stress. Braga Netto's job now will be to arrange an accommodating of names. For the Navy and Air force, Forces of lesser relative weight, the succession should be less neuralgic than for the Army.

Both forces are meeting this Tuesday afternoon to discuss the names to be nominated for Braga Netto.

In a meeting on Monday night, the High Command of the Force listed the names at the table, all of them longest-lived with four stars on their shoulders.

From this Wednesday (31), the longest-lived will be José Luiz Freitas (Land Operations), who will go to the reserve in August. The oldest, Decio Schons (Department of Science and Technology), leaves active duty on this day.

The second oldest is the chief of staff, number 2 in the hierarchy, Marco Antônio Amaro dos Santos. He worked with Dilma Rousseff (PT), which hinders his chances.

More obstacles arise for the third one, Paulo Sérgio (Personnel Directorate, who takes care of the health of the uniformed personnel). He gave an interview listing the restrictive measures that made the Army have a much lower rate of contamination than that of the population, which irritated the president.

Laerte Souza Santos (Logistic Command) is next on the list, but he was the head of General Eugênio Pacelli, who lost his post after having weapon control decrees overthrown by Bolsonaro.

Next in line is the commander of the Northeast, Marco Antônio Freire Gomes.

All of them are close to Pujol, but Freire Gomes has good relations at Palacio do Planalto for having followed a career very close to that of Luiz Eduardo Ramos (Parachutist Brigade, Special Forces), the general who has now gone to the Civil House and is one of Bolsonaro's oldest friends.

He, therefore, leads the race as a favorite for Pujol's place. The fact that he is not the most senior is not an impediment: there have already been other commanders who were chosen in the same condition.

Translated by Cassy Dias