With a Second President in Jail, Brazil’s Carwash Probe Lives on
RIO DE JANEIRO — The news coverage was breathless, political speculation was rampant and satirical Twitter memes flew after former President Michel Temer of Brazil was taken into custody on Thursday in connection with a sweeping corruption probe known as Carwash.
Mr. Temer’s arrest did not come as a surprise. The 78-year-old politician, who for decades wielded enormous influence in Brazil’s notoriously transactional political system, has long been dogged by accusations of corruption.
But it was the second jailing of a former Brazilian president in as many years. And, in an unusual step some saw as overly harsh, a federal judge in Rio de Janeiro ordered Mr. Temer’s detention as a precautionary measure as the authorities investigate what they say is a pattern of kickbacks and money laundering he oversaw. The continuing Carwash scandal has tarnished much of Brazil’s political elite and could threaten the current government’s agenda.
What is Carwash?
In 2014, federal police officers and prosecutors with expertise in money laundering exposed a wide-ranging scheme that came to be known as Lava Jato, or Carwash, after they stumbled onto suspicious currency transactions at gas stations in Brasília, the capital.
The investigation exposed a pattern of institutionalized kickbacks at some of Brazil’s largest companies and put scores of politicians across the political spectrum in the cross hairs of Brazil’s judiciary, which operates with considerable autonomy.
Carwash’s tentacles reached across borders, landing former presidents and ministers from across Latin America in jail. It also led to the largest foreign corruption settlement negotiated by the United States Justice Department.
The investigation roiled Brazil’s politics last year when former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was detained to start serving a 12-year sentence, following his conviction in 2017 on charges of corruption and money laundering. That knocked him out of the presidential contest, in which he had been the front-runner.
How does Mr. Temer fit into the corruption investigation?
At the time, Brazil was led by Mr. Temer, who rose to the presidency in 2016 after the impeachment of his onetime political ally, former President Dilma Rousseff. Ms. Rousseff, who was not implicated in Carwash, became deeply unpopular as the scandal widened and Brazilians endured a brutal economic recession.
Mr. Temer’s time in the presidential palace was turbulent. Just months after he took the helm of a deeply polarized Brazil, law enforcement officials leaked a transcript of a wiretap in which Mr. Temer was heard condoning a bribe. Things soon got worse: the attorney general filed two sets of corruption charges against Mr. Temer in 2017, accusing him of corruption, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
Mr. Temer, a center-right politician, spent much of his political capital in office persuading members of Congress to use their authority to keep those cases from moving forward. Once he left office on Jan. 1, though, Mr. Temer lost the legal protections elected officials enjoy. Brazilian legal experts assumed it was a matter of time before the former president would be arrested in connection with one of the 10 corruption probes in which is a suspect.
Does Mr. Temer’s arrest help or hurt his successor?
In the short term, the detention is likely to be welcome news for President Jair Bolsonaro. Widespread news coverage of Mr. Temer’s arrest diverts attention from a series of scandals involving Mr. Bolsonaro’s family and leaders of his party, which have hurt his popularity.
Mr. Temer’s arrest also lends credence to the narrative that Brazil’s corruption crackdown is still going strong in the Bolsonaro era.
While Mr. Temer’s arrest rattled the markets in Brazil, it could bode well for the future of the country, Waldir Soares de Olivera, the leader of Mr. Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party in the lower House of Congress, said in an interview.
“It enhances our credibility before the international community,” he said.
But Mr. Temer’s legal troubles may hinder Mr. Bolsonaro’s ability to make headway on an ambitious legislative agenda, which includes an overhaul of the pension system and a crime bill that would give law enforcement officials broader authority to go after corruption.
Several key lawmakers, including the Speaker of the House, Rodrigo Maia, are targets of Carwash prosecutors. Mr. Maia’s father-in-law, Wellington Moreira Franco, was among the suspects detained on Thursday along with Mr. Temer.
“These reforms take away entitlements and it’s hard for people to accept that their entitlements are being taken away by lawmakers embroiled in scandals,” said Octavio Amorim Neto, a political scientist at Fundação Getulio Vargas University in Rio de Janeiro.
How are Brazilians reacting to Mr. Temer’s detention?
A small group of protesters greeted Mr. Temer with chants of “thief, thief!” as he arrived Thursday night at the police compound in Rio de Janeiro where he is being held.
Few people have rallied to his defense. Even after the conviction of Mr. da Silva, a leftist lion who was president from 2003 to 2010, he remained beloved among a significant share of the population; “Free Lula” remains a rallying cry among supporters, who regard him as a political prisoner.
Mr. Temer, on the other hand, left office as a widely loathed leader, the personification of the back-room dealing at the heart of Brazil’s endemic culture of graft.
But even some politicians and analysts who have little sympathy for Mr. Temer think prosecutors and the judge handling the case overreached by ordering his detention before he stood trial.
“I think it’s an abuse of their authority, which we see from time to time,” Sen. Tasso Jereissati said, referring to the team of crusading judges and prosecutors who handle Carwash cases. “He wasn’t a fugitive. As far as I know, his address was known.”