- President Jair Bolsonaro reshuffled six ministers in his government but not much should change in terms of policy.
- The Big Center was the main winner of the reshuffle.
- The pandemic will pose the biggest challenge to the new construct.
The ministerial reshuffle on 29 March was in large measure a move by President Jair Bolsonaro to shield himself from trouble by shifting close conformist advisors around and conceding considerable space for the “Big Center” – the loose coalition of parties that rather than coalescing around centrist policies have traditionally followed power wherever it sits. For the president, it was important to show that he was still in charge despite appearances, to allow Congress to have a seat at the presidential palace, and, to send a message to the Armed Forces to boot. He attempted to look strong when in fact he confirmed this is a particularly weak moment in his presidency.
The main implications of the reshuffle are as follows:
Foreign Affairs: Foreign Affairs Minister Ernesto Araújo had to resign on 29 March after a last attempt to look good to Bolsonaristas by publishing on social media that Congress was partial to China in the upcoming auction for the 5G wireless network infrastructure. Araújo was blamed for mishandling negotiations to obtain Covid-19 vaccine and active ingredients but he has been highly controversial since the beginning of the government, upholding the most radical far-right views of the president, from deforestation to human rights. He was replaced by a career diplomat, Carlos Alberto França, who never headed a Brazilian Embassy overseas but has worked closely with the president since the beginning of his mandate, including as the presidency’s chief of protocol. It is unlikely he will do anything the president disapproves, but he may be allowed to be more diplomatic than Araújo.
Congress: Congress now has a foot in Bolsonaro’s presidency with the appointment of Flavia Arruda, a representative from the liberal party (PL), as Government Secretary. The president had so far resisted having a politician in the post, previously occupied by two Army Generals. The change is very significant since it shows the growing influence of the Big Center vis-à-vis the government. Arruda was the chairperson of the Joint Budget Committee and has supported government initiatives in Congress. In her new post, more than doing the government’s work, the perception is that Arruda will be instrumental in securing funding for the Big Center. Executive-congressional relations should improve but the government no longer has the upper hand in driving policy. The signpost to watch is whether Economy Minister Paulo Guedes will manage to influence much of the upcoming budget discussions in the next context.
Justice: Andre Mendonça, another close advisor to the president, will move from the helm of the Justice Ministry to the Attorney-General’s Office (AGU). Mendonça joined the ministry when former CarWash Judge Sergio Moro resigned as minister in March 2020. His subservience has elevated him to pole position in the race for a seat in the Supreme Court (STF). He replaces José Levi who joined the AGU in April 2020. Levi was not a true Bolsonarista and seemed on the verge of a dismissal for having refused to sign a constitutional challenge filed by the president at the STF against governors who were implementing curfews to contain the spread of the coronavirus (which was ultimately dismissed precisely for having been signed by the president and not by the AGU). The new Justice Ministry will be a Brasilia Federal Police Chief, Anderson Gustavo Torres, who is close to the firearm caucus in Congress and much appreciated by the president.
Armed Forces: The president also relieved Army General Fernando Azevedo e Silva of his duties as Defense Minister. Azevedo e Silva is a long-time friend of the president but had issues with how Bolsonaro often spoke of “his Armed Forces” and implicated them in initiatives that were those of his government and not of the military. In his three-paragraph letter of departure, Azevedo e Silva referred to how during his tenure he “preserved the Armed Forces as State institutions”. The episode shows how active top-brass in the military increasingly favor distancing themselves from the president. Today, 30 March, all three heads of the armed forces resigned. This is a major blow to Bolsonaro but should not produce much more noise. Azevedo was replaced by Army General Braga Neto who left as Chief-of-Staff of the presidency.
The pandemic: Bolsonaro may feel shielded from impeachment or prosecution and the Big Center may feel it now controls the government. Neither side is fully correct. More importantly, both may be held responsible for the inevitable worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic in the next few months despite increasingly better containment practices and larger vaccines supplies. Brazil may reach half-a-million deaths by mid-year. At that point, the newly implemented construct may not survive the political blame game that will naturally emerge. Bolsonaro will certainly remain the weaker link until then.