BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made six Cabinet changes on Monday in the biggest ministerial reshuffle since he took office as pressure mounts on the far-right leader over his handling of the pandemic that has killed over 300,000 in the country.
Three ministers left the government, including Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, a China hawk whose departure followed mounting criticism from lawmakers of his failure to guarantee additional COVID-19 vaccine supplies from Beijing and Washington.
Araujo had been under pressure for weeks. His verbal attacks on China, environmentalists and the left were increasingly seen as noisy distractions, especially given the change in U.S. leadership and the worsening health crisis in Brazil.
Bolsonaro seized on the loss of one of his most loyal allies to shore up support in his Cabinet, putting his chief of staff in charge of the Defense Ministry and placing a federal police officer close to his family in charge of the Justice Ministry.
“Bolsonaro is under enormous pressure and reacted to regain the political narrative,” said Creomar de Souza, founder of Dharma Political Risk and Strategy in Brasilia. “The change at the Ministry of Defense was completely unexpected, and created a lot of confusion.”
Latin America’s largest economy is suffering its worst phase of the pandemic, with deaths topping 3,000 a day as a contagious new variant rages through the country. Bolsonaro has gained international notoriety for railing against lockdowns, sowing doubts on vaccines and pushing unproven “miracle” cures.
Brazil trails only the United States in total COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Amid growing discontent over coronavirus deaths and the return of leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the political stage - a threat to Bolsonaro’s re-election hopes next year - the president is eager to lock in political and popular support.
There had been no advance word of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva’s exit or rumors of discontent. The president has placed current and former military officials throughout his government, leading to concerns that the military’s reputation could suffer.
“During this time, I preserved the Armed Forces as institutions of state,” Azevedo e Silva wrote in a ministry statement. “I leave in the certainty of a mission accomplished.”
In his place, Bolsonaro appointed his current chief of staff, Walter Souza Braga Netto, one of several former army generals who had moved into the government’s inner orbit.
Another former general, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, will take over as chief of staff, leaving his Cabinet-level post handling legislative priorities to Flavia Arruda, a first-term lawmaker with ties to Bolsonaro’s new allies in Congress.
Outgoing Solicitor General Jose Levi Mello, whose signature was notably absent from a government request that the Supreme Court block state stay-at-home measures in the pandemic, said in a letter he would resign.
Bolsonaro will replace him with current Justice Minister André Mendonça, whose role goes to Anderson Gustavo Torres, a federal police officer currently in charge of public security for the Federal District, which includes the capital, Brasilia.
Carlos Alberto Franco França, a diplomat close to Bolsonaro, was named as the new foreign minister, according to a statement from the presidential press office outlining the changes.
Last week, Bolsonaro replaced Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty general who had overseen most of the coronavirus response. He was widely blamed for a patchy vaccine program that has given a first dose to fewer than 10% of adults.
New Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga told lawmakers on Monday he was hopeful of procuring U.S. vaccine supplies, and would be meeting with the U.S. ambassador in an effort to secure earlier delivery of 20 million doses. [nL1N2LR2SD]
Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Jamie McGeever; Additional reporting by Leonardo Benassatto in Sao Paulo; Writing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney
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