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Brazilian Military Curtails President Bolsonaro’s Power Over COVID19 Dispute

Above: Bolsonaro with generals, from Brazil Wire.

Note: On April 4 there were reports that General Walter Braga Netto was now the “operational president” of Brazil, with President Jair Bolsonaro effectively stripped of his decision-making powers. Netto, an Army General, had been the chief of staff for Bolsonaro. He was put in power by the Armed Forces’ high command after Bolsonaro was isolated by his cabinet, governors and other political leaders over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initial reports came from Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky. A high-ranking official of the Brazilian Army told his Argentine counterpart that Bolsonaro is no longer involved in decision making. Verbitsky said, “There was a telephone communication from a high ranking Brazilian army official with one from Argentina, in which the Brazilian informed them that they had taken the decision to circumvent President Bolsonaro in all important decisions.” Bolsonaro is described as a “monarch without effective power.”

DefenseNet also reported that Netto is now the “Chief of Staff of the Planalto,” (the presidential palace) corroborating the Argentine journalist’s claims. They reported that on March 30, 2020, Netto opened the press conference in a new role in politics while continuing his position as Chief of Staff of the Army Command.

They let Bolsonaro keep his title but he no longer has any decision making power.  Keeping him in office avoids an uprising by the extreme right and low ranking members of the military who support him. There has not been a public announcement that General Netto is the “acting president” as there is no such position in the Brazilian Constitution.

Bolsonaro’s downfall was the result of his stance on COVID-19. Bolsonaro’s disapproval rating surged as he took a vocal stance against coronavirus containment measures. He compared COVID-19 to a “bit of sniffles” and criticized the “hysteria” around it. Polls showed his popularity dropping with only a 33 percent approval rating.  

Bolsonaro was in conflict with Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandettar over COVID-19. The health minister’s approval surged from 21 percent to 76 percent as he stood by international recommendations for taking aggressive measures to contain the coronavirus. 

Bolsonaro held a meeting with all the ministers and they all sided with the health minister. Bolsonaro was isolated. He threatened to fire the health minister if he criticized Bolsonaro publicly. Bolsonaro minimized the virus but also said “Some will die. I’m sorry. That’s life.” Mandetta said: “Are we ready for the worst-case scenario, with army trucks transporting bodies through the streets? And cameras live streaming that on the internet?”

Leaders of multiple progressive parties called for his resignation. In an open letter signed by 16 legislators, governors, and former candidates, they described Bolsonaro as the biggest obstacle to sensible policy on the virus and said: “Bolsonaro is unable to continue to govern Brazil and face this crisis, which jeopardizes health and the economy.” They put forward a national emergency plan to contain COVID-19 and protect the economic security of the people.

Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine regional governments’ efforts to enforce such shutdowns sparked a political rebellion by the governors of nearly all of Brazil’s 27 states. Governors were ignoring Bolsonaro’s orders on COVID-19.

International Business Times reported: “Bolsonaro has faced nightly protests for weeks in some of Brazil’s biggest cities for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Confined residents bang pots and pans out their windows, shouting, “Get out, Bolsonaro!’”

This led to the military chiefs replacing Bolsonaro with General Netto and removing his decision-making authority. Bolsonaro is now only a figurehead with no power.

Members of the military held nine of the top 22 positions in Bolsonaro’s government. Bolsonaro appointed the 62-year old general as his chief of staff in February. Netto’s military career began in 1975. Among his roles were serving as the commander of the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. In 2011, he was designated military attaché of the Army to the Brazilian Embassy in the United States, also accredited to Canada. On March 29, 2019, took office as Staff-Chief of the Army.

Bolsonaro has been neutralized but Military eyes 2022

“Bolsonaro made threats he couldn’t carry out about replacing the Health Minister and reopening commerce. Now he is isolated and everyone has turned on him, as General Villas Boas admits. He’s been reduced to impotence.” writes sociologist Emir Sader.

The new right wing strategy is a perversion of liberal democracy that relies on the media and the Judiciary. It is a coup cloaked in an institutional form that destroys democracy from the inside, and establishes another armored institutionality within, to prevent the left from returning to power. This name of this strategy is hybrid war.

In Brazil, the first act of this hybrid war was the coup against Dilma Rousseff, which took the form of an impeachment. There was no legal justification, but it was enacted with the complicity – the complicit silence – of the Judiciary. Democracy was broken as a means to take the PT out of the government and resume the neoliberal model. After four consecutive electoral defeats, Conservatives bet on the the shortcut of a coup.

The second act was the arrest and conviction of Lula without any proof, and the barring of his candidacy at a moment when he was expected to win the 2018 presidential election in the first round. The PT’s return to government through these elections was prevented by preventing Lula from running for office.

The third act was the monstrous operation over WhatsApp, which prevented Fernando Haddad from being elected president in a manner that was absolutely illegal according to Brazilian law. The right promoted Bolsonaro to the presidency in a shameful way.

Since Bolsonaro proved to be a good candidate for such an election, but a bad president, they had to solve the problem of governance. Bolsonaro has increasingly surrounded himself with both active and reserve military officers as key staff in his government. Many of them have found him incompetent, or have come into conflict with him.

The armed forces, instead of fulfilling its constitutional duty to guarantee national sovereignty,  transformed into an alternative power reserve for conservatives at a moment when their traditional political parties went into crisis. This also happened in 1964 and it lasted for more than two decades.

The military has participated in the Bolsonaro government since the beginning, occupying positions increasingly close to the presidency, and taking part in everything the government does, from its radicalization of the neoliberal model, to the privatization of public assets centered around the attacks against Petrobras. It waited for the government to weaken and surrounded Bolsonaro, initially putting limits on certain excesses and, finally, building an institutional siege.

There were those who spoke of Congress implementing a ‘white parliamentarism’, (a switch to a parliamentary system that would reign in presidential power) but what lies ahead is ‘olive green parliamentarism’. We now have a kind of prime minister in General Braga Netto, who has taken on the role of coordinator of all ministries and, especially, health policy, to prevent Bolsonaro from committing any more acts of madness.

The military coordination circling around Bolsonaro has already deflated his institutional importance. This group is already operating, as it did to prevent the firing of Health Minister Mandetta, and as it is doing to try to neutralize damage to relations with China, caused by the disastrous statements of Bolsonaro’s sons and ministers.

Bolsonaro made threats he couldn’t carry out about replacing the Health Minister and reopening commerce. Now he is isolated and everyone has turned on him, as General Villas Boas admits. He’s been reduced to impotence. It remains to be seen how he and his children will react.

The hybrid war now reaches a new stage – that of the government armoring itself to prevent the PT from winning the 2022 presidential elections. This is the next goal.

But they do not play alone. There are other players on the field, with their own contradictions. The maintenance of the neoliberal model, even more so in the midst of an economy which will be in hard recession by the end of this year, will lead to mass popular mobilizations in defense of the interests of all – most importantly, jobs. The government will be tempted to harden further and engage in open repression against popular protests.

And the left will benefit from the strengthening of the State, the public sector, the public health system, universities, public research centers, and feelings of solidarity with the most deprived, to propose that the reconstruction of our society can only take place with the protagonism of the public sphere, strengthening not weakening democracy and popular participation.

It will be a period of great political and ideological disputes, which will define Brazil’s horizons for several decades. Redemocratization will come with the defeat of this militarized government and the restoration of truly democratic elections.

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