Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has 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 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.
Critics have blamed delays in deliveries from China of important pharmaceutical ingredients partly on Araújo’s belligerent stance towards Beijing, as well as criticising what they said was Brazil’s increasing isolation under his watch.
Hours later, he was followed by Fernando Azevedo e Silva, a reserve army general who held the defence brief. Local media reported that he 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 followed a growing chorus of disapproval from the country’s Congress and business elite, who have attacked the government’s handling of the virus. It also followed the replacement this month of the 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 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 to impeachment, aimed at Bolsonaro.
Disdainful of lockdowns and until recently ambivalent about vaccines, Bolsonaro has long denied the gravity of the disease. But his tone has shifted in recent weeks.
He may 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 said.
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 Brazilians are estimated to have received at least one jab and the government says it has placed enough orders for all of 213m people 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 said 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