RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
One of the worst COVID-19 crises in the world is unfolding in Brazil. In total, more than 313,000 people there have died from COVID-19, the second highest death toll after the U.S. President Jair Bolsonaro played down the virus for a long time. Now, as the death toll climbs, he faces intense pressure. He's now responded to that pressure by firing his foreign and defense ministers. We're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves from Rio de Janeiro. Phil, thanks for being here.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You're welcome.
MARTIN: How do these firings help Bolsonaro fight the pandemic?
REEVES: Well, you know, these are turbulent times in Brazil. The pandemic's completely out of control. Health systems around the country are in collapse. And as you say, 313,000 Brazilians have so far died. So Bolsonaro's under huge pressure. He's come under huge pressure from Congress, from big business and others to make changes and, particularly, to replace his foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo. He's a far-right ideologue. He's widely accused of badly damaging Brazil's standing on the world stage. He's offended key allies, including China, Brazil's biggest trading partner. Among other things, he's called a Chinese-made vaccine the communist vaccine. So the various forces demanding his head say that that kind of behavior has led to Brazil being isolated internationally and that this is hampering its ability to access vaccines from China, from India and the U.S. and so on. And Araujo has now - gone. He's resigned as part of this reshuffle, which has involved six senior personnel. And he's been replaced by Carlos Alberto Franco Franca, who is seen as a low-profile diplomat.
MARTIN: What's been the public's response to the firings?
REEVES: Well, immense interest. The foreign minister was widely expected to go, but the defense minister was not. His departure is significant. Bolsonaro is against lockdowns and other restrictions, you know, that governors and mayors are now imposing. He has talked about using the military to defend the right to free movement. As Bolsonaro is a big fan of Brazil's past military dictatorship, people get a bit nervous when he talks like that. The outgoing defense minister, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, who's just gone, indicated yesterday that he's against this politicization of Brazil's armed forces. There are reports here suggesting the army high command is unhappy about his departure. And Bolsonaro, who has packed his government with military officers, may now find that his relationship with the military is somewhat strained, to say the least.
MARTIN: So does that mean his overall standing is weaker as a result of this?
REEVES: Well, you know, this tells you that he is, yes, significantly weaker. He's had to bow to pressure from Brazil's Congress, a body that he used to very theatrically defy. That pressure is particularly coming from a bloc of center parties. They threatened him with impeachment if he didn't do something. His popularity is also going down. His archrival, the former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is back on the political stage, having had his corruption convictions annulled. And so Bolsonaro's in a tough spot.
MARTIN: Just real quick, is there anything to suggest he could change tacks at this point?
REEVES: Well, he's a populist. And, you know, people call him the Trump of the tropics. He's got an election next year. He'll be focusing on that. But he has shown he can sometimes shift ground. He no longer calls the coronavirus a little flu.
MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks, Phil.
REEVES: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "OUTLIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.