Sao Paulo CNN  — 

Brazil reported yet another record number of deaths on Tuesday as a surge of Covid-19 infections cripples hospitals across the country. But it’s the political turmoil rocking the government that grabbed headlines on Wednesday.

A day after the biggest Cabinet reshuffle since President Jair Bolsonaro took office, the three commanders of Brazil’s armed forces were squeezed out, fueling speculation that Bolsonaro is losing the support of the military and seeking to assert control, amid growing criticism over his handling of the pandemic.

“The Military Refuses Political Affiliation and Bolsonaro Replaces the Heads of the Armed Forces,” declared O Globo newspaper. In its headline, Folha de S. Paulo called it the “biggest military crisis since 1977,” when there was a similar institutional rift during the military dictatorship.

The military departures have been particularly scrutinized because Bolsonaro, a former captain, has made much of his ties to the armed forces, filling his cabinet with generals and even celebrating the military dictatorship that once ruled the country.

Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a retired Army general and former senior member of Bolsonaro’s administration, told CNN affiliate CNN Brasil that while ministerial changes are normal, “it is not normal to replace the three commanders of the armed forces without a reason, an explanation or any information given to society.”

The political crisis comes as Brazil struggles to control the latest and most deadly Covid-19 surge to date. A record 3,780 people died on Tuesday, with ICU occupation at over 90% in 14 of Brazil’s 26 states. Brazilians have increasingly taken their anger out on Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the virus from the beginning.

Bolsonaro recently invoked the military as he lashed out at state governors for lockdown measures, warning, “My army won’t go to the streets to ensure obedience to governors’ decrees.”

His approval rating has hit all-time lows and cost him support among allied parties in Congress. The Cabinet reshuffle was aimed at shoring up support by giving key ministerial positions to those parties and by replacing embattled foreign minister Ernesto Araujo.

Araujo had previously come under fire from Congress for his antagonistic relationship with China, not only a key trade partner but a main supplier of raw ingredients in the vaccines used in Brazil.

But the broader shakeup came as a surprise, especially Bolsonaro’s decision to replace former defense minister, retired General Fernando Azevedo e Silva. The relationship had grown tense in recent weeks and in his resignation letter, Azevedo e Silva pointedly said he had “preserved the Armed Forces as institutions of state.”

Bolsonaro’s minister of communications, Fabio Faria, insisted the recent personnel changes did not reflect a major rift. “There is no change in the position in relation to the armed forces,” he told CNN Brasil. “The president is a military man and the relationship with the military is very close.”

Faria added that there would be a “harmonious transition” as the new commanders were appointed. Traditionally, the president selects commanders from among a list of names provided by the armed forces.

In fact, Bolsonaro replaced the outgoing general at the Defense Ministry with another one: Walter Souza Braga Netto, formerly the president’s chief of staff. And one of his first actions as minister on Tuesday was to call the 1964 military intervention that led to a 21-year dictatorship in Brazil, a “movement” that should be “understood and celebrated.”

But according to Carlos Melo, a professor at Sao Paulo’s Insper university, Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic created problems with many in the military.

“It was obvious to (Bolsonaro) that he didn’t have the dominion over the Defense Ministry that he wanted and he is trying to get it now, wrongly, without understanding that the armed forces belong to the state, not the government,” Melo told CNN Brasil.