Brazil’s hard-right government thrown into crisis with departure of heads of army, air force and navy

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil/Wikimedia Commons)

Ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s far-right government has been plunged into a deeper far-reaching political crisis. Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing president and former military officer, sacked the Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araújo, along with other members of his cabinet. He then dismissed the Commanders in Chiefs of the army, air force and navy before they could announce their planned resignations.

These developments have triggered an even bigger political storm than the one which was already battering Brazil. In echoes of the attempts of what his friend Donal Trump did to try and cling onto power. Behind these explosive actions are attempts by Bolsonaro to prepare the ground for some type of coup aimed at securing himself in power in the run-up to and after the elections scheduled for 2022.

Bolsonaro’s presidency has represented a human catastrophe for the Brazilian masses. Dismissing the threats of COVID-19 as nothing worse than “a dose of the flu”, he has refused to take any measures to protect peoples’ health so as to defend the economic interests of the ruling elite. The result has been a tsunami of deaths. The official death toll is well over 300,000. Day after day the record numbers of deaths have been broken. It currently stands at over 3,700 per day. A death toll higher than any other country apart from the USA.

State governors have described the situation as being hit “by a nuclear warhead”. Those states which have enacted some measures and announced a lockdown have been threatened with being denied federal funding which has aggravated the tensions between some states and the federal government.

Bolsonaro’s far-right government has introduced repressive measures. He has praised the military dictatorship in Brazil which lasted from 1964-85 and the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Under his rule, the government has been stacked with military and ex-military officials. There are more serving military officers involved in government departments than there were under the military dictatorship!

Although at the time of writing the situation is not fully clear, it seems Bolsonaro is intending to use the military as a type of Pretorian guard to defend himself. This is against the background of growing splits and divisions in his government, which was largely made up of a coalition of numerous parties and groupings representing particular state and local fiefdoms or dynasties.

Support for Bolsonaro has fallen in the recent period, as protests and demonstrations against his rule have increased. Yet he still retains hardcore support of up to 30% according to recent polls.

The catastrophic situation facing Brazil – with commentators warning of the “collapse of Brazil” – under Bolsonaro means that the ruling class, in the main, wants Bolsonaro out. His organised support is weak. In the last five years, Bolsonaro has been a member of three political parties, the latest of which has not yet stood in any elections. Even when he was elected in 2018 he was not the preferred candidate of the Brazilian capitalist class (their candidate, Ciro Gomes, was knocked out in the first round).

Bolsonaro was elected against the background of a collapse in confidence and trust in the traditional parties of the ruling class and disillusionment in the former Workers Party (PT) led government of Dilma Rousseff (2011-18) which was embroiled in corruption and failed to carry out policies in the interests of the working class. His election indicated that the Brazilian ruling class and its parties had lost credibility and legitimacy and opened up a massive political vacuum.

Covid crisis

The onset of the COVID-19 and the crisis which has followed turned a defeat for the capitalists into a catastrophe. Now it appears that the attempts to consolidate the military behind Bolsonaro provoked the tops of the armed forces, who have been critical of his handling of the pandemic. Neither the capitalist class nor apparently many top layers of the armed forces want or need a return to military rule, at this stage.

It was not an accident that these events have taken place following the acquittal of Lula, the former PT president, of all corruption charges which allows him to run again for the Presidency in 2022.

A highly polarized situation is gripping Brazilian society. It is uncertain how events in the short term will unfold or what base of support Bolsonaro enjoys amongst other layers of the armed forces where divisions exist. It is not excluded Bolsonaro may attempt to further militarise the situation and concentrate more repressive powers into his hands. It is uncertain if he has the support to enable him to do so. Such attempts will undoubtedly lead to big social upheavals and a deeper crisis. On the other hand, it cannot be excluded that the ruling class may take other steps to remove Bolsonaro.

Should Lula run for the presidency against Bolsonaro, a massive polarization in society would undoubtedly take place. Lula and the PT long ago moved to the right and do not pose a threat to capitalism. Sections of the ruling class may even opt to allow Lula to return to power as a means of checking and holding the masses in check and try to stabilise the situation.

The crucial question facing the working class is preparing for a struggle against Bolsonaro and any attempts at a military or semi-military regime being imposed. There is also an urgent need to prepare to build a socialist alternative to a future Lula government that does not have a programme to break with capitalism. There is a debate in the left opposition party, PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party), over what position it should adopt in such circumstances. Some PSOL members argue that the party should not present a candidate. We believe this would be a mistake. PSOL, in this situation, should enter into the struggle and present its own candidate in the first round of the election. The party made big electoral gains in the municipal elections in 2020, gaining over two million votes, and has a base to build on.

In a second-round battle between Bolsonaro and Lula a vote against Bolsonaro, and building a socialist campaign to prepare for future struggles, will be necessary.

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April 2021
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