Brazil’s Bolsonaro shakes up cabinet as pressure mounts over Covid handling
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro announced a sweeping reshuffle of his cabinet including new foreign and defence ministers, as political pressure mounts on the rightwing leader to get a handle on the country’s Covid-19 crisis.
With Latin America’s biggest nation battling its darkest episode of the pandemic, a day of resignations and rumours ended with a new line-up for a government struggling to contain a second, more deadly wave of the disease.
Ernesto Araújo, the country’s top diplomat, offered to quit on Monday, according to local media, following calls from lawmakers unhappy with Brazil’s efforts to acquire coronavirus vaccines and inputs from overseas.
Critics have blamed delays in deliveries of key pharmaceutical ingredients from China partly on Araújo’s belligerent stance towards the Asian superpower, as well as criticising what they said was Brazil’s increasing international isolation under his watch.
When Brazil needed major partners like China during the pandemic, things did not flow naturally
Hours afterwards, he was followed by Fernando Azevedo e Silva, a reserve army general who held the defence brief. Local media reported that the military man was sacked by Bolsonaro.
A wider shake-up was later announced with a total of six replacements, in posts including the president’s chief of staff, justice minister and attorney-general.
The overhaul follows a growing chorus of disapproval from the country’s Congress and business elites, who have attacked the government’s handling of the virus. It follows the replacement this month of the former health minister, who had come under fire over a stuttering inoculation campaign.
More than 310,000 people have lost their lives to Covid-19 in Brazil, with daily deaths and new infections hitting records over the past week. The country is ranked 16th for fatalities on a per capita basis.
Arthur Lira, the leader of the Chamber of Deputies, last week warned of “bitter political remedies” if the course was not corrected — interpreted by many as a thinly-veiled reference of impeachment aimed at Bolsonaro.
Disdainful of lockdowns and until lately ambivalent on vaccines, for a long time Bolsonaro denied the gravity of the disease, but his tone has shifted in recent weeks.
He may now be hoping that the removal of Araújo and other ministers will be enough to calm relations with the powerful Centrão political bloc in Congress, on whom he relies for parliamentary support.
Thiago Vidal, a political analyst at consultancy Prospectiva, said Araújo’s resignation was the result of dissatisfaction not only among politicians but also the business lobby and investors.
“When Brazil needed major partners like China during the pandemic, things did not flow naturally,” he added.
In addition, some observers believed Araújo’s admiration of former US president Donald Trump could have proved an obstacle to obtaining vaccines from the Biden administration.
About 7 per cent of people in Brazil are estimated to have received at least one jab and the government says it has placed enough orders for all of its population of 213m by the end of the year.
However, shortages have slowed injection drives in some areas, while the circulation of a more transmissible strain of the virus throughout the country has sparked international alarm.
“It is difficult to make a calculation and talk about how much foreign policy may have contributed to the deaths in Brazil, but we know that it did not help at all in relation to obtaining vaccines, respirators and intubation kits,” said Celso Amorim, former foreign minister.
Araújo was firmly on the ideological wing of the government, espousing a nationalist and anti-globalist worldview that opponents say damaged the country’s diplomatic standing.
During his time in office, Brazil’s longstanding solidarity with developing nations gave way to closer alignment with conservative governments in the US, Israel and Europe. Araújo will be replaced by Carlos Alberto Franco França.
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice and Bryan Harris
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