Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has replaced six ministers in a sweeping cabinet reshuffle that comes as the far-right leader faces mounting pressure to account for his government’s handling of a surging COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the changes, Carlos Alberto Franco França was named as new foreign minister and Walter Souza Braga Netto was confirmed as new defence minister, Bolsonaro’s press office said in a statement on Monday evening.
They replace Ernesto Araújo and Fernando Azevedo e Silva, respectively.
The announcement was made after earlier reports that Araújo, a loyal ally of Bolsonaro, and Azevedo e Silva had stepped down.
Bolsonaro, a COVID-19 sceptic who has rejected the need for public health measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, has been widely criticised amid a second wave of COVID-19 infections that has pushed hospitals to the brink.
More than 312,000 people have died in Brazil from COVID-19, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, while the country has reported more than 12.5 million infections – second only to the United States.
Brazil’s health ministry said on Monday 1,660 coronavirus-related deaths and 38,927 new cases had been reported in the past 24 hours, as experts warned this week that younger Brazilians were being particularly hard-hit.
Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said Bolsonaro has not publicly spoken about the cabinet changes yet.
“There’s increasing pressure on the president because of the mishandling of the pandemic,” she said.
The departure of Azevedo e Silva was a surprise, given there were no rumours of his exit or rumblings of discontent.
The president has placed current and former military officials throughout all levels of his government.
“During this time, I preserved the Armed Forces as institutions of state,” Azevedo e Silva wrote in a ministry statement. “I leave in the certainty of a mission accomplished.”
Bolsonaro on Monday also named army General Luiz Eduardo Ramos as his new chief of staff and police commander Anderson Torres as justice minister, and appointed a new attorney general and government secretary.
Earlier this month, the president replaced Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty general who had overseen most of the coronavirus response. He was widely blamed for a slow and patchy vaccine programme.
Brazil’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Reuters news agency about Araújo’s departure.
The former minister had irked senior lawmakers, who had become increasingly vocal in calling for him to be replaced and were angered by Araújo’s longstanding criticism of China.
His support for former US President Donald Trump was also seen as an obstacle in persuading the Biden administration to help Brazil secure much-needed coronavirus vaccines.
Also on Monday, Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said he would meet US Ambassador Todd Chapman on Tuesday to try to secure the faster delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.
The country has a deal to receive 100 million doses this year, but the first delivery of two million jabs is only expected in May.
“We are very committed to getting an earlier delivery, an exchange, because the Americans are not going to release vaccines until they have vaccinated their entire population, but they are willing to make an exchange,” Queiroga said.