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The President Of Brazil Is Facing His Biggest Political Crisis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Brazil is sliding deeper and deeper into crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic there is raging. Health systems are collapsing across the map. The virus is killing more people each day in Brazil than it is anywhere else. And now this week, a political battle erupted, pitting the president, Jair Bolsonaro, against his closest ally, the military. NPR's Philip Reeves has more.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It was Jair Bolsonaro's birthday the other day. He turned 66. Bolsonaro marked the occasion by coming out of the presidential palace and lambasting mayors and governors who are trying to keep Brazilians off the streets by imposing pandemic restrictions. These tyrants are hindering your freedom, Bolsonaro tells his supporters. You can count on the army to defend your rights. Bolsonaro has a habit of talking about Brazil's army like this, says Igor Gielow, editor at large at Folha newspaper.

IGOR GIELOW: All the times that Bolsonaro was really, really weak, he resorted to the military guys.

REEVES: Sometimes Bolsonaro even uses the term my army, says Gielow.

GIELOW: My army? Come on. It's not the army. It's the Brazilian army, not Bolsonaro's army, So this is very, very annoying to them.

REEVES: On Monday, Bolsonaro suddenly fired his defense minister, apparently because the minister believed Brazil's armed forces should stay out of politics. The next day, the chiefs of all three services - army, navy and air force - decided to quit in protest. That sent a message to the president, says Octavio Amorim Neto, professor of political science at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.

OCTAVIO AMORIM NETO: They made it clear that he is not going to further politicize the institutional armed forces.

REEVES: Bolsonaro is an army captain from the far-right. He was elected with huge support from Brazil's military. Generals hold key government positions. Neto thinks they've become too close to the Bolsonaro administration.

NETO: They made a big mistake. They let themselves be associated with the government, and they benefited a lot from this association.

REEVES: And then, says Neto, the pandemic arrived.

NETO: And the Bolsonaro government decided to adopt policies that go against science. And then things turned out to be very difficult for the military.

REEVES: The departure of the three military chiefs comes as Bolsonaro's facing growing pressure over Brazil's international standing.

SERGIO AMARAL: Brazil used to have a very good image abroad.

REEVES: Sergio Amaral is a former Brazilian ambassador to the U.S. He says Bolsonaro is doing a lot of damage to that image.

AMARAL: The problem is not that the world is against Brazil. The problem is that Brazil is against the world.

REEVES: Bolsonaro has repeatedly mocked the country's biggest trading partner, China. European leaders are horrified by the destruction he's enabled in the Amazon rainforest. As for Washington, Bolsonaro is a huge admirer of Donald Trump. He took more than a month to recognize President Biden's victory. Amaral believes this makes it harder for Brazil to combat COVID-19 just as the pandemic is spiraling.

AMARAL: We are paying a high price because we could not find a supplier to our needs in the area of vaccine and even in the area of some equipment.

REEVES: Many Brazilians feel, as the pandemic worsens, the outside world is turning against them, says journalist Patricia Campus Millo.

PATRICIA CAMPOS MELLO: We are literally a pariah because we can't enter, like, many of our neighbor countries. We can't go anywhere.

REEVES: Bolsonaro's popularity is now slipping. He's cutting deals in congress to avoid being impeached. Octavio Amorim Neto again.

NETO: He is a weak president. He has become much more isolated in the past weeks.

REEVES: Yet Neto says that likely won't stop Bolsonaro from continuing to try to make Brazil's army into his army.

NETO: That's what he wants - more pliant army and navy and air force chiefs. So my sense is that this political-military crisis will continue.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.