President Jair Bolsonaro and the Armed Forces in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic: going in opposite directions?

President Jair Bolsonaro's refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation contributes to his political isolation. Different from the negativism that germinates in the Plateau, the Army Command has adopted a discourse of firmness in fighting the pandemic. What are the perspectives for the relationship between the government and the military in this scenario?

Anaís Medeiros Passos - Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC). Master in Political Science at UFCHS IFCH

According to data from the Ministry of Health, on March 30, the country registered 4,256 confirmed cases and 133 deaths resulting from COVID-19. It is necessary to emphasize that Brazil was one of the last countries, in the Latin American region, to take more severe measures in relation to the disease caused by the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). These initiatives were, for the most part, initiated by state governors and mayors, with the aim of containing the spread according to the limitations of ICU beds offered by the Unified Health System. In opposition, the chief executive, President Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), has minimized the pandemic on repeated occasions, referring to the complications resulting from the coronavirus as a “little grip”, in addition to classifying the measures of social restraint as syndromes of a collective “hysteria”.

In a context of political isolation from the President, the President's relationship with the Armed Forces could be key to sustaining the government politically. According to data from Latinobarómetro 2018, the Armed Forces are the second institution in which the Brazilian population trusts the most (58%), after the Church (73%). Since his election, Jair Bolsonaro has appointed an unprecedented proportion of military personnel to head Ministries: 8 of the 22 Ministries are controlled by military personnel. This trend was accentuated by the appointment of active military personnel to occupy high-level positions in the government: General Walter Souza Braga Netto (Casa Civil) and General Luiz Eduardo Ramos (Government Secretariat). Currently, of the 4 Ministries based at the Planalto Palace, 3 are occupied by military personnel from the Armed Forces and 1 by a military police officer. It is true that, since the end of the military regime, the Planalto Palace has never been so olive green.

The separation between government officials and military institutions, a topic of clear importance for safeguarding the reputation of the institution to which the officers belong, remains fragile. This indistinction between the government and the high command of the military institutions can cause, after a presidential term, the loss of prestige of the Armed Forces with the population in the face of the government's unsatisfactory performance in the face of economic and social demands. In addition, it is true that, what was initially the identification of some Generals with the government's political project of allegedly combating corruption, reveals its limitations, as the world of politics implies negotiation with different groups of opinions. The departure of General Santos Cruz from the Presidential Government Secretariat, on June 13, 2019, is an example of these internal tensions.

After the first year of Jair Bolsonaro's administration, the possibility that the military “pay the bill” for the government's ineptitude is a matter of concern in the barracks. It is worth mentioning that, in one of his most recent interviews, in December 2019, General Villas Boas, already out of the exercise as Commander of the Army, stressed the need to distinguish “military from the government of the Army”. The current Army Commander, General Leal Pujol, has been characterized by maintaining a technical distance in relation to the Plateau and, specifically, with regard to the “olavista” sector that make up the government, which are seen as radical by the so-called sector military. This stance is notorious, given that, previously, the former Army Commander has clearly positioned himself politically on the vote on the former President Lula's habeas corpus.

It is in the context of seeking to differentiate the Bolsonaro government from the Armed Forces that we can interpret the official statement by the Army Commander in the face of the COVID-2019 pandemic. In a statement issued on March 24, 2019, in disagreement with the speech adopted by President Bolsonaro, General Pujol stated that the moment is "of care and prevention", in addition to "a lot of action" by the Brazilian Army. Although late, hygiene guidelines were issued to military schools. The General further pointed out that "perhaps it is the most important mission of our generation." and that "if our threatened homeland is being threatened, we will fight without fear". In opposition, Bolsonaro defended last Sunday, March 29, the opening of non-essential services. The dissonance between government and the Armed Forces is clear, and favors the approximation of the military sector, which makes up the government, of Vice President Hamilton Mourão (PRTB), to the detriment of the President.

PERSPECTIVES

  • Historically, the military has carried out civic and social activities with the most vulnerable population. The military is likely to participate more actively in the coming weeks in disinfecting streets, public buildings, public transport, vaccination campaigns and the distribution of food and medicine.

  • With the likely worsening of the health crisis in the coming weeks in Brazil, we can expect a change in Jair Bolsonaro's speech recognizing the seriousness of the situation. This attitude would not be new among populist governments, such as the change in attitude adopted by Donald Trump.