RIO DE JANEIRO — The three commanders of Brazil’s armed forces resigned jointly on Tuesday, a day after President Jair Bolsonaro fired his defense minister as part of a big cabinet shake-up.
The departures of the military leaders, which followed the unexpected replacement on Monday of five other cabinet members, fueled rampant speculation in the capital about a breakdown in the relationship between the president and the country’s military, which has played a central role in the Bolsonaro administration.
“The dismissal of the heads of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force after the sudden shift in leadership at the defense ministry is unprecedented in the era since democracy was restored,” one lawmaker, Rep. Rodrigo de Castro, said in a statement. “It reveals a real crisis between the military and the government.”
The political turbulence in Brasília comes as the government faces withering criticism, including calls for Mr. Bolsonaro’s impeachment, for its cavalier and chaotic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 313,000 Brazilians. A surge in infections has overwhelmed hospitals across the country, leaving patients to die waiting for a hospital bed.
Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, has given the military a leading role in politics and policymaking in Brazil, entrusting its leaders with the most power they have had since the country’s military dictatorship ended in the mid-1980s. He picked a retired Army general as a running mate and appointed top military leaders for scores of senior government roles normally occupied by civilians.
Retired generals and military analysts in Brazil struggled to make sense of this week’s changes, which neither the president nor the outgoing commanders explained.
“It makes no sense from a political or administrative sense,” said Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a retired Army general who served in a senior role in Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration until June 2019. “There needs to be an explanation of why this happened, otherwise it conveys disregard for the individuals and for the roles.”
Mariana Kalil, a geopolitics professor at the Brazilian National War College, said the president appeared to enjoy stronger support in the lower rungs of the military than among the brass. She said the chiefs may have cut ties with a politically embattled president to send a clear message that the armed forces would not do his political bidding.
“There’s always been the hypothesis of a military commander backing more repressive government policies, things outside the bounds of the law,” Ms. Kalil said. But she said Brazilian military leaders have played a “moderating” force in a government led by a brash and combative president who has turned many allies into enemies.
Senator Tasso Jereissati, a leading opposition figure, said that as Mr. Bolsonaro has tangled with Congress and faced scrutiny in the courts, “he has always insinuated that the armed forces have his back.”
As the president has picked new fights with other elected officials over proposed lockdowns, military leaders may have decided to jump ship rather than be seen as accomplices in a ruinous handling of the pandemic, Senator Jereissati said.
“We’re paying the price of having elected an individual who is wholly unprepared for the job, who is boorish and unhinged,” he said.
Since he took office in January 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro has given military leaders tremendous power across government agencies — and in doing so has tied their reputation to his. Military leaders have failed at core missions Mr. Bolsonaro gave them, including overseeing the response to the pandemic and reining in deforestation in the Amazon.
The president’s relationship with his vice president, retired Gen. Hamilton Mourão, and his departing defense minister, Gen. Fernando Azevedo e Silva, has grown tense in recent weeks, according to analysts, as the country’s coronavirus crisis has worsened.
Last week, the president replaced his health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty general who failed to lead a comprehensive response to the pandemic or negotiate the purchase of a sufficient amount of Covid-19 vaccine.
In his resignation letter, General Azevedo e Silva said he had sought to “preserve the armed forces as an institution of the state.” The phrase appeared to convey a belief that Mr. Bolsonaro had sought to politicize the armed forces.
The resignation of the three military commanders — Gen. Edson Pujol of the Army; Lt. Gen. Antonio Carlos Moretti Bermudez of the Air Force; and Adm. Ilques Barbosa Junior of the Navy — was announced in a short statement issued by the defense ministry. It did not provide a reason.
Monday’s cabinet changes included the departure of the foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, a hard-line conservative who picked fights with the government of China, Brazil’s top trading partner and the principal purveyor of the vaccines currently available to Brazil.
Lawmakers criticized Mr. Araújo for the country’s failure to secure access to a large number of Covid-19 vaccines.
Mr. Bolsonaro also replaced his justice minister, his chief of staff and the lawyer who represents the executive branch in cases before the Supreme Court.
Rep. Vitor Hugo de Araújo Almeida, a legislator close to the president, played down the significance of the changes.
“We’re living through a pandemic, so all efforts must be focused on saving lives and saving jobs,” he said. “I think it’s natural that he would be making shifts.”
The changes come as Mr. Bolsonaro starts laying groundwork for a re-election bid next year. He has sowed doubts about the legitimacy of the election system, which has led critics to ask whether he could try to stay in power if he loses.
Amy Erica Smith, a professor of political science at Iowa State University who specializes in Brazil, said the president may be seeking to appoint loyalists for key military posts.
“If Bolsonaro uses this opportunity strategically and plays the game well, he could get to replace the heads of all three branches with men who would be more willing to go along with his political projects,” she said.
But she said it may be hard to find military leaders willing to join a president who has alienated so much of the political establishment.
“The Brazilian military just isn’t eager to step out all on its own to support an unpopular president who is confronting large numbers of other elected leaders,” Ms. Smith said.
Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro, and Letícia Casado from Brasília.