The commanders of Brazil’s army, navy and air force will be replaced, the country’s defence ministry has announced, following a cabinet reshuffle that came amid mounting pressure on the government to respond to surging coronavirus cases and deaths.
The ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that the decision was made earlier in the day in a meeting with incoming Defence Minister Walter Braga Netto and his predecessor, Fernando Azevedo e Silva.
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It did not provide any additional details about the changes.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing mounting pressure to account for his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the South American nation and killed more than 313,000 people.
The country has recorded more than 12.5 million infections to date, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and a recent surge in cases has pushed the healthcare network to the brink, with supplies of oxygen and other supplies running low.
Doctors and public health experts have warned that the current wave is hitting younger Brazilians especially hard.
Bolsonaro, a COVID-19 sceptic who has downplayed the threat of the virus, on Monday announced that he was making six changes to his cabinet, including replacing his defence, justice and foreign affairs ministers.
The former foreign affairs minister, Ernesto Araújo, was a staunch Bolsonaro ally who had increasingly drawn the ire of Brazilian lawmakers over his longstanding criticism of China.
The departure of Bolsonaro’s former defence chief, Azevedo e Silva, came as more of a surprise on Monday.
In a ministry statement, Azevedo e Silva said he had “preserved the Armed Forces as institutions of state” during his tenure. “I leave in the certainty of a mission accomplished.”
Some Brazilian media reported that the army, navy and air force chiefs had resigned in protest against Bolsonaro’s decision to replace Azevedo e Silva.
“For the first time in history, the commanders of all three branches of the armed forces presented their joint resignation in disagreement with the president,” the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper said.
While replacements for the military chiefs were not named on Tuesday, some analysts expressed fears the far-right president, a former army captain himself, may attempt to assert greater control over the military.
“Since 1985, we haven’t had news of such clear intervention of the president with regard to the armed forces,” Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, told the AP news agency.
“Will this resistance continue?” he said. “That’s the question.”
The changes come only one week after Bolsonaro swore in a new health minister – the fourth since the start of the pandemic.
Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said on Monday that he planned to meet US Ambassador Todd Chapman on Tuesday to try to secure the faster delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines, as Brazil’s vaccination effort has been plagued by delays.
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.
Earlier this month, the Brazilian foreign ministry said it was in discussions with US President Joe Biden’s administration to try to import excess vaccines from the US.