Mass resignation of military chiefs in Brazil: Could history repeat itself?

Sophie Coombs | Latin America Fellow

On Tuesday March 30, in an historical first, the heads of all three branches of the Brazilian Armed Forces tendered their resignations. General Edson Leal Pujol, Admiral Ilques Barbosa and Lieutenant-Brigadier Antônio Carlos Bermudez, the respective heads of the country’s Army, Navy and Air Force, made a surprise exit after disagreements with President Jair Bolsonaro. Their resignations were reportedly triggered by Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the former Defence Minister General Fernando Azevedo e Silva on March 29.


Upon leaving office, Azevedo issued a statement saying he left the position “with the certainty of a mission accomplished” and that during his tenure he succeeded in “preserving the Armed Forces as State institutions”. The former defence minister’s comments point to a resistance against the politicisation of the country’s military under Bolsonaro – a president who views national institutions as “subordinate to him and not to the state”, according to Professor Carlos Melo of São Paulo University’s Institute of Education and Research.


The exact circumstances of Azevedo’s dismissal remain unclear. However, there is speculation that Bolsonaro’s decision was a response to the minister’s refusal to support what he deemed an unconstitutional national security law. Azevedo’s stance is significant in the Brazilian political landscape, as it demonstrates that the Armed Forces remain independent and unwilling to bend to Bolsonaro’s whims.


Azevedo and Brazil’s former military chiefs may have taken a remarkably bold stand against political interference in the Armed Forces, yet their departure and subsequent replacement could prove to be destabilizing for the country’s democracy. As pressure for a presidential impeachment mounts, the 2022 election approaches, and the possibility of Bolsonaro consolidating his own power in a self-coup looms, the integrity of Brazil’s new military officials will undoubtedly be called into question.


Echoes of Brazil’s authoritarian past


On March 31, the 57th anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 military coup, Bolsonaro announced General Walter Braga Souza Netto as his government’s new defence minister. The timing, although coincidental, is for many an eerie reminder of the precarity of Brazilian democracy.


The 1964 coup, staged in response to a growing communist influence, ushered in a military dictatorship which ruled Brazil until 1985. Often described as one of the darkest periods in the country’s history, the military regime was responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of civilians. The humanitarian implications of the dictatorship still haunt the country well into the 21st century.

Last March, during celebrations commemorating the coup, Braga Netto commented that “The 1964 movement is part of Brazil’s historic trajectory. And as such the events of that March 31st must be understood and celebrated”. While comments of this nature are typical of Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric, the new Defence Minister’s overt praise of the country’s authoritarian past should be seen as cause for concern.

More than your average ministerial reshuffle, the appointment of Braga Netto has stirred up latent tensions regarding abuse of military power. Many have speculated over the prospect of a coup under Bolsonaro – an event which could send Brazil back 30 years in terms of military-state relations.


Impeachment, Lula’s return and the 2022 elections: potential coup triggers


Fortunately, a coup does not seem to be on the horizon, for now. A small source of reassurance comes from the appointment of Brazil’s new army commander General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira – an outspoken critic of Bolsonaro’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, who was not the president’s first choice for the position. It is hoped Nogueira can provide some much-needed balance to military-government negotiations.

While the situation is currently stable, there are several threats to Bolsonaro’s leadership which critics fear could cause an abuse of military power at the hands of the president.

Firstly, there are mounting calls for the impeachment of President Bolsonaro on the grounds that his handling of the pandemic has proven catastrophic for the country. In a country that has already impeached two presidents in the last 30 years, threats such as these are not to be taken lightly.


Also of concern for Bolsonaro and his supporters, is the re-emergence of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After serving jail time for his involvement in the “Operation Car Wash” corruption scandal, Lula’s convictions were overturned by Brazil’s Supreme Court last month on procedural grounds. Lula has since returned to playing an active role in the Brazilian political sphere, first as an active critic of the Bolsonaro Presidency and now as a potential candidate for the 2022 Presidential election. Lula’s return could galvanize the country’s left as well as those disenchanted with the current administration, which may prove extremely disruptive for Bolsonaro at next year’s election.


The prospect of impeachment or of mounting pressure at the next presidential election, could trigger Bolsonaro to co-opt the Brazilian Armed Forces to defend his personal interests. A self-coup, in which Bolsonaro consolidates his own power could see Brazil regress to a state of authoritarianism not seen since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.


The international community, particularly other Latin American states should watch the situation attentively and be prepared to intervene.


Sophie Coombs is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs