It was an announcement that caught observers by surprise. Weakened by the worsening coronavirus crisis, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro carried out a major reshuffle in his government on Monday, with six changes of ministers, to key portfolios such as Justice, Defense or Foreign Affairs. The only minister whose departure was expected was foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, criticized for hampering the import of vaccines because of his poor relations with China.
As the second part of his four-year term began, Bolsonaro came under increasing pressure from Parliament, with criticism from all sides of his chaotic handling of the health crisis. Brazil is the second most bereaved country in the world after the United States, with nearly 314,000 lives killed by the virus and more than 2,500 deaths on average per day for a week.
Two weeks ago, another important change had taken place, the fourth in less than a year at the head of the Ministry of Health, General Eduardo Pazuello having been replaced by cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga.
Approaching the center
Monday’s reshuffle notably allows the president to get closer to the “Centrao”, an informal group of centrist parliamentarians who cashed in their support in exchange for important posts.
This is how he appointed the deputy Flavia Arruda to the secretariat of the Government, in charge of dialogue with the Parliament. This figure of the “Centrao” is only the third woman out of 22 ministers.
But the change that the “Centrao” had called for the most was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Many mistakes have been made in the fight against the pandemic, one of them is the lack of productive diplomatic relations with countries that could have collaborated with Brazil at this time of crisis”, lamented the President of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, last week.
A whimsical figure, Ernesto Araujo, 53, was one of the most enthusiastic members of the “ideological wing” of the Bolsonaro government, a staunch detractor of globalization and a fervent admirer of former US President Donald Trump. He has never ceased to castigate “cultural Marxism” which “influenced the scientific dogma of global warming”. Araujo has often angered “Maoist” China with his provocative statements, even though Beijing is Brazil’s largest trading partner. He was eventually replaced by Carlos Alberto Franco França, a former ambassador described as a “discreet diplomat” by the daily Folha de S. Paulo.
Preserving the Army
If the departure of Ernesto Araujo had been in the air for several weeks, that of Fernando Azevedo e Silva from the Ministry of Defense took everyone by surprise. In a brief statement, he assured to have been “entirely loyal” to President Bolsonaro. But he also wished to underline his efforts to “preserve the army as a state institution”.
Sources cited by the newspaper Or Balloon reveal that the Minister was uncomfortable because of demonstrations by pro-Bolsonaro activists nostalgic for the military dictatorship (1964-1985) who had called for an “intervention” by the Army against Parliament and the Supreme Court.
“The reason for this departure is not clear, either the president wants to entrust this post to a political ally, or they had a serious difference”, explained to AFP Mauricio Santoro, political scientist of the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro.
The new Minister of Defense was already in government: General Walter Braga Netto is leaving the post of Minister of Casa Civil, halfway between the functions of Chief of Staff and Prime Minister. The latter gives up his post to another general, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, replaced by Flavia Arruda at the secretariat of the Government.