ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Brazil is going through tumultuous times. Today, the country lost its army, air force and navy chiefs. The government says all three are being replaced. This is the biggest political crisis to hit the Brazilian military in decades. And it comes just one day after the president fired his defense and foreign ministers. All this while Brazil is struggling with the world's worst surge of COVID-19 deaths. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us now from Rio de Janeiro.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
SHAPIRO: Yesterday, you were talking about the exodus of the Cabinet members and now all three military chiefs gone in one day. What's happening?
REEVES: Well, when you boil it down, Ari, this is about President Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to use Brazil's military for his own political ends. The departure of these three military chiefs, it's connected with Bolsonaro's surprise decision yesterday to fire his defense minister, who's a general known to disapprove of Bolsonaro's efforts to politicize the military. His dismissal seems to have upset these three military chiefs. There are multiple reports here from credible outlets saying they resigned en masse in protest, although they haven't publicly confirmed that. We know one of the three who's the head of the army, or was, has spoken out before about keeping Brazil's military independent from politics. And the other day, we had, you know, a good example of why these three might be worried. Bolsonaro's fiercely opposed to pandemic lockdowns. And he told a crowd of supporters he was willing to use Brazil's army to guarantee freedom of movement. And that sort of behavior makes some of the top brass uneasy, especially now when they don't want to be associated with Bolsonaro's disastrous response to the pandemic.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, it is an odd time for him to pick this fight with the military while Brazil is suffering from the pandemic worse than any other country in the world.
REEVES: Yeah, I think Bolsonaro knows his position is weakening. He was pretty much forced by Congress to dump his foreign minister, which he did yesterday. That was a big humiliation for Bolsonaro. Some here believe that his unexpected decision to sack the defense minister on the same day was intended actually as a counterattack deliberately to trigger the exit of the three military chiefs so that he could bring in new generals more loyal to him and his far-right government. So in that - if that's right, it would be an effort to shore up his position and, crucially, to give him greater control over the military. Analysts say that if that's true, it's worrying, but we'll have to see who he appoints as the new military chiefs.
SHAPIRO: Bolsonaro has had such a close relationship with the military. Is that love affair over?
REEVES: Well, it's certainly got a lot messier. This is a defining moment, Ari. I mean, remember, Bolsonaro's an army captain. He's packed government with thousands of military officers, some in key positions. He's also an open admirer of Brazil's past military dictatorship. You'll remember that when he came into power in 2019, a lot of people were worried that he and the generals were a threat to Brazil's democracy. Today, though, we appear to have seen military chiefs actually standing up for democracy. But I should add that these commanders don't represent everyone in the barracks. I mean, Brazil's military is known to include some hard-line anti-democratic elements.
SHAPIRO: And is there any risk of Bolsonaro being driven from power?
REEVES: At this stage, I don't think that's the case, although he's in trouble. I mean, many Brazilians are really distressed by his response to COVID-19. They say his denialism allowed the virus to run rampant, turning Brazil into a global health risk. People in Congress are threatening to impeach him. And an election's coming up next year. And his archenemy, the former leftist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is back in the political game. So that's not a recipe for stability.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro.
Thank you, Phil.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.