In Brazil, when you detain a former president who's loved by roughly half the country and hated by the other half, this is what you get: a pitched battle between groups of protesters outside the house of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known to all as Lula.

Some protesters outside his São Paulo home were shocked that police would dare detain him. Others are surprised it's only happening now.

"He should have been detained a long time ago," said Thiago Pereira. "Everything is so slow in Brazil. If this was in the United States, he would have been detained and investigated already."

On the streets of Rio, opinion is less heated, but just as divided.

Alexandre Souza

Lula supporter Alexandre Souza says the former president is being unfairly targeted. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I am actually surprised with people's capacity of believing that all evil in the world is only in one person," Alexandre Souza told me, as he smoked a cigarette outside a Rio movie theatre.

He was upset that Lula — whom he supported as president — is being made a scapegoat for much wider problems. But Elena Cunha strongly disagreed.

"I think where there's smoke, there's fire. And up to now he managed to get away from police," she said. "Our justice is slow but does not fail."

She told me her hope was that "everything wouldn't end up in pizza," a Brazilian saying meaning political talk often ends up producing nothing.


Carlos Pereira says the arrest isn't all bad news for Brazil in the lead-up to the Olympics; it will show the world the country has a strong democracy. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Political scientist Carlos Pereira says that's unlikely.

"We have strong rule of law, and nobody's above the law. If someone committed a crime, even if it's a rich man, or a powerful man," Pereira said.

We watched together as Lula gave his first press conference after his release. Pereira pointed at the screen and shook his head. "It's a political game now. He's trying to regain connection with voters that he lost," he said.

In the press conference, Lula said the ordeal has made him hungrier to run in 2018. But Pereira says Lula's popularity has plummeted since the scandal began.

"One month ago, about 35 per cent of the Brazilian population would say they were voting for him, no matter what. Now, it's only 20 per cent."

The question now is how this will affect his protégé, current President Dilma Rousseff, who is already facing impeachment for allegedly breaking accounting laws.


A demonstrator holds inflatable dolls depicting Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and current President Dilma Rousseff during a protest late last year calling for the impeachment of Rousseff. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

"Now politicians have to calculate the electoral, the political cost of voting against impeachment," Pereira said. "Lula and the President Dilma Rousseff, they are very well-connected. And it's very difficult to separate them.

"If things go wrong with former president Lula, [it] also decreases dramatically the probability that Dilma Rousseff is going to be able to govern the country."

With Brazil's economy in tatters, the country struggling to contain the Zika virus, and a political scandal threatening to bring down the government, it's hard to see how Brazil can build the Olympic backdrop they were hoping for.

But Pereira sees a bright side: Brazil can still showcase something important to the world.

"I think that it's another indication how strong Brazilian democracy is," Pereira said. "So Brazilian democracy has provided more evidence it's on the right track."