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President Of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro Is Replacing Multiple Members Of His Cabinet

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is political upheaval in Brazil. The country is already at the epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for about a quarter of the world's daily deaths from COVID-19. Now the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has taken everyone by surprise and reshuffled his government. Out are the foreign minister, the minister of defense and four others. For more on these developments, we're joined now by NPR Brazil correspondent Philip Reeves.

Hey, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. So I understand first, the defense minister resigned. Now we see news of these other departures from his cabinet. Why is this happening right now?

REEVES: Well, Jair Bolsonaro is under immense pressure, especially from Brazil's Congress. A growing number of Brazilians just aren't happy about his handling of the pandemic. More than 313,000 people here have died. Health systems around the country are collapsing. You know, the vaccination program has been chaotic and slow. It's tangled up with political feuding. And there's a growing feeling in Congress, in particular, but also among business leaders and others that something urgently needs to change. So Bolsonaro has responded by announcing his biggest reshuffle since he came into power at the beginning of 2019. We don't know whether this actually signals a shift in his approach to the pandemic. It kind of seems unlikely. He started out by scoffing at the virus and the vaccines. He has now - very late in the day, started championing vaccines, but there's no sign that he's changed his opposition to the fundamental weapon against vaccine - against the virus right now, which is lockdowns.

CHANG: OK, so a lot of this is in response to the public outcry about the way he has handled the pandemic. But what do all of these departures tell us about the state of Bolsonaro's government at the moment right now, you think?

REEVES: Well, I think it will be seen as a sign of weakness. Bolsonaro has a history of standing up to Congress. He's a far-right populist, elected on a promise of strong leadership. He has a record of stirring up his more fanatical followers against Congress, and now he appears to be bending under pressure. This is happening in the same month that he replaced his health minister, obviously a key figure in a pandemic. He's had four health ministers...

CHANG: Wow.

REEVES: ...Since the pandemic began. Now six ministers are being replaced just as his country's enduring the worst health crisis by far in its history, coupled with severe economic problems. And that's not exactly a sign of strength and stability.

CHANG: Right. Well, I'm especially curious about the foreign minister here because getting rid of your foreign minister is a huge deal. Why was he one of the people being singled out?

REEVES: Well, those demanding change have one complaint in common, and that is that Brazil's foreign policy is badly damaging Brazil's standing in the world. They say that Brazil used to be admired as a collaborative international entity, a force for good. They feel, though, that now Brazil is not only isolated but actually a global health threat to others because Bolsonaro's response to the pandemic has been so negligent that it's allowed new variants to evolve here that will likely spread beyond Brazil's borders. And they worry that because of this isolation, it's harder for Brazil to obtain vaccines and equipment that it urgently needs to fight COVID. As foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo was the official implementing that policy. He was from the far-right ideological wing of the Bolsonaro government. People say that that ideology has led Brazil to conduct policy that's highly damaging to its interests.

CHANG: That is NPR's Philip Reeves.

Thank you, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.