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As Coronavirus and Economic Woes Ravage Brazil, Bolsonaro Improvises and Confounds

RIO DE JANEIRO — He has sneered at the Covid-19 pandemic, even as it led Brazil’s health care system to collapse. He has ridiculed opposition lawmakers, who are gunning for his impeachment.

His main rival is back in the political arena, threatening a re-election bid.

And this week he ordered a sweeping cabinet shake-up and removed the heads of the armed forces — a strong base of support — with no public explanation.

Even for a polarizing leader who often appears to act on gut instinct, the recent moves by President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil have confounded and unnerved many in Latin America’s largest country, where the coronavirus is killing people at a record rate.

Brazilian lawmakers on Wednesday presented a new initiative to impeach Mr. Bolsonaro, calling his dismissal of the military commanders the day before a dangerous and destabilizing action.

The forcing out of the military commanders, which followed the replacement of roughly one-third of his cabinet, created consternation and bewilderment in political circles. There were no clear signs that the personnel changes represent a strategic shift for the government as it navigates the deadliest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 317,000 Brazilians.

With hospitals overloaded, a slow vaccination campaign and growing unemployment, Mr. Bolsonaro is under enormous pressure to make bold policy changes. But politicians and analysts said they were struggling to make sense of his latest moves.

“I don’t see a strategic plan behind all this,” said Senator Kátia Abreu, a powerful lawmaker who heads the foreign affairs committee. “I see a lot of improvisation, impulsive actions that generate a crisis out of the blue.”

Mr. Bolsonaro is facing an array of overlapping challenges as he struggles to shore up his electoral base ahead of a campaign for re-election next year.

Unemployment rose to 14 percent in recent months, from the 11.6 percent jobless rate Mr. Bolsonaro inherited when he took office in January 2019. A formidable political adversary, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, re-emerged on the political stage this month after the courts vacated corruption cases against him, which restored his right to run for office.

The president confronts daunting economic obstacles. While he was able to retain considerable political support last year by spending billions on a pandemic welfare program, continuing to keep the politically popular assistance aid flowing, while meeting other fiscal obligations, would burst spending caps codified by law.

At the same time, Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis has turned the country into an international pariah. Experts fear that the spread of the country’s more-contagious strain will accelerate across the globe, and that as transmission grows, new variants may yet emerge.

Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, said Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent moves appear to reflect a desire to surround himself with loyal and subservient officials. But he said the fealty of Mr. Bolsonaro’s new subordinates does not appear to strengthen his hand in Congress or expand his base ahead of next year’s presidential election.

“There is no political coherence,” Mr. Santoro said. “This is not a shift toward moderation, or an attempt to build bridges” in Congress, he added.

On Wednesday, a day after Brazil recorded 3,780 daily deaths, a record, Mr. Bolsonaro renewed his attacks on lockdowns and other rigid measures that health experts have said are necessary to arrest the spread of the virus.

“We’re not going to fix this problem by staying at home,” Mr. Bolsonaro said. “No nation can sustain itself for long with that kind of policy.”

Mr. Bolsonaro offered no new information about the events that led him to dismiss the commanders of the Army, the Air Force and the Navy on Tuesday. The three stepped down abruptly a day after the president fired his defense secretary, a retired general.

In their latest effort to start impeachment proceedings against Mr. Bolsonaro, a handful of lawmakers on Wednesday accused the president of having attempted to turn the armed forces into a political instrument. But the circumstances that led to the removal of the three men remained unclear, with neither the president nor the commanders offering an explanation.

Lawmakers and analysts speculated that the dismissals followed a profound disagreement over the role of the armed forces in Mr. Bolsonaro’s government. The president has recently vowed that “my army” would not be deployed to enforce quarantines or lockdowns.

In his resignation letter, the outgoing defense minister, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, said he had preserved the armed forces as “institutions of the state.” The remark was interpreted to mean that he had resisted efforts to politicize the military — a sensitive issue in a country that was governed by repressive military governments for more than two decades following the 1964 coup.

“The question that looms large, and must be answered, is: What was the order given to the generals that they did not feel they could follow?” said Ms. Abreu, the senator, who was not a proponent of the latest impeachment initiative. “The president has an obligation to explain this on live television to calm people down.”

In a sign of how deeply the pushing out of the military chiefs shook the political establishment, six presumptive presidential candidates for 2022 issued a joint statement warning that three decades after the end of the dictatorship, “Brazil’s democracy is threatened.”

The statement added: “There is no shortage of examples of the way authoritarianism can emerge from the shadows if societies are careless and fail to speak up in defense of democratic values.”

The new defense minister, Walter Souza Braga Netto, a former Army general who left active duty last year, rattled critics of the government by issuing a statement about the anniversary of the 1964 coup — the anniversary was Wednesday — saying the date should be “celebrated.”

But later in the day, he called today’s armed forces a bedrock of Brazil’s democracy. “On this historic day, I reaffirm that the most valuable asset of a nation is the preservation of democracy and the freedom of its people,” he said during a ceremony in which the three new chiefs of the armed forces were announced.

Lawmakers have called for Mr. Bolsonaro’s impeachment dozens of times since last year, but they have failed to garner broad support. Arthur Lira, the new leader of the House of Representatives, last week put the president on notice as he decried the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Mr. Lira warned that the “political remedies in Congress are well known and all of them are bitter.” Some, he added in a clear reference to impeachment, are “fatal.”

A group of lawmakers last week warned Mr. Bolsonaro in a letter that the 2021 budget, as currently drafted, would exceed fiscal limits established in 2016 to rein in public spending and attract foreign investment. Exceeding the cap, which economists say appears all but inevitable now, would open a new avenue for the president’s impeachment.

“We’re on a path of fiscal irresponsibility and that creates a serious legal problem,” said Zeina Latif, an economist.

But analysts and leading lawmakers say there is little appetite for a new impeachment, given how the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 proved so politically disruptive and divisive.

Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said powerful blocks of lawmakers are likely to use Mr. Bolsonaro’s isolation to extract concessions.

“It’s in their best interest to leave him in office and get the things they always wanted,” she said. She predicted the president’s popularity would fall ahead of next year’s presidential election. “Next year they wash their hands of Bolsonaro.”

Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro, and Letícia Casado from Brasília.

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