The Ritual Sacrifice of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

Together with Lula, Dilma Rousseff says goodbye to presidencyBrazilian president Dilma Rousseff was sacrificed as a scapegoat for sins and shortcomings widely shared by her accusers. In a nationally televised session of the Chamber of Deputies on April 16, 2016, each deputy had ten seconds to defend his or her vote. Few bothered to mention the technical legal reason for seeking her removal, borrowing money from state banks in violation of the fiscal responsibility laws. 

Instead, the 367 deputies who supported impeachment said they were saving their families, their communities and their nation from the abyss into which Brazil had fallen. The 137 who defended her mostly argued that the sanctity of the presidential term should be respected, and that she wasn’t as bad as a lot of the others.

The deputies fumed righteous anger, but many also seemed fearful, not just for their country but for themselves. This fear was understandable since many are under investigation by the Federal Police for corruption. Eduardo Cunha, the Leader of the Chamber who orchestrated the session, was himself removed from office by the Supreme Court a few days after the impeachment vote.

The mass psychology driving the spectacle in Brasilia has been little explored. Psychoanalyst Tales Ab’Sáber recently published a short volume about Dilma Rousseff and one about her patron, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Ab’Sáber’s extended essays are works of cultural criticism and historical commentary with only occasional psychoanalytic insights. But they are a beginning.

Lula and Dilma are polar opposites in terms of popularity. Lula was the most popular president in the history of Brazilian public opinion research and Dilma was the least popular. They are also opposites in personality type: Lula is gregarious, outgoing and charismatic. Dilma is stern, lacking in charisma, and prone to lashing out angrily at signs of disagreement.

Together with Lula, Dilma Rousseff says goodbye to presidency

Dilma had never run for political office but had served in several appointed positions in state and federal government. Lula selected her as his chief of staff when José Dirceu, his longtime close associate, was forced to resign and take the rap for corruption scandals. Dilma and the whole country were surprised when Lula decided he wanted her to be the Workers Party candidate for the presidency in 2010.

Lula had served two terms and was ineligible to serve again, so he nominated Dilma as a place-holder. This avoided an intraparty struggle over succession, and the possibility that a new charismatic leader might emerge to take Lula’s place. At the time, Lula was so popular that journalists observed he could have elected a post to the presidency. This observation was repeated so frequently that Dilma found it necessary to publicly assert that she was not a post.

Lula’s popularity had much to do with the economic boom during his presidency, sustained by high commodity prices. But there was more to it than that. Ab’Sáber describes Lula’s role in the Brazilian national psyche as “a leader chosen by destiny whose ultimate strength comes from a transcendent, divine source…. In generic psychoanalytic terms it is the magical thinking of a child who does not understand the realistic constraints of his parents’ thinking.”

In Ab’Sáber’s view, Lula’s “first charismatic imaginary, the object of the transference from the heterogeneous and socially significant public that sustained him was that of the good savage, civilized and civilizing, antibourgeois because of his position in the class structure, but with the practical social, economic and political knowledge lost to the theoretical left locked in the ivory tower of the university.” (All translations are my own.)

Lula was raised by an impoverished single mother, became a lathe mechanic and union leader and the first Brazilian president from the working class. But once he put aside strident socialist rhetoric to get elected, he was warmly welcomed by all social classes as a transformational leader who would bring Brazil into the modern age. His slogan was “Lula: Peace and Love.”

Ab’Sáber uses Lacanian psychoanalytic terminology to describe the process by which Lula softened the harsh slogans of his neo-Marxist past. Ab’Sáber’s jargon is too difficult for a direct translation, but as best I understand it he says that in a process Lacanians call foreclosure (forclusion in French), problems are not repressed outright but reframed to be less threatening. Thus, misery becomes poverty, the proletariat becomes the middle class, and mammoth fortunes become income inequality.

In other words, Lula rephrased problems so they were less threatening. This worked well as long as the economy was booming. Brazil did especially well during the global financial crisis of 2008 because its large state sector protected it from the worst of the downturn. But a Keynesian stimulus has to be followed by a cutback when the crisis subsides.

Dilma and the Workers Party didn’t accept that. They were smug and overconfident, they thought they could continue to run up debt and fill the bulging bureaucracy with their minions. Their profligate spending and mismanagement led to massive street demonstrations by youth frustrated by high prices and lack of opportunity.

Dilma got narrowly re-elected in 2014 by denying the seriousness of the crisis caused by the fall of commodity prices and by borrowing massive funds from state banks in violation of the fiscal responsibility laws. As soon as she was re-elected she effectively admitted that the opposition had been right and that cutbacks were needed. People were angry at having been deceived by an unfeeling bureaucrat

The economic crash that followed would have taxed the popularity of any president, but Dilma was especially vulnerable. In Ab’Sáber’s view, on a psychological level Lula had much in common with his social democratic predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Both are conciliatory leaders who seek consensus. Dilma is more authoritarian, concerned with projecting strength.

Ab’Sáber believes she is more similar, as a psychological type, to the military president Ernesto Geisel. He says she also had something in common psychologically with José Serra, the social democrat who ran against her 2010. Serra is more of a technocrat than a schmoozer. But as a technocrat Serra has the great virtue of being highly competent with much stronger qualifications in economics than Dilma. Serra has also proven himself politically as a mayor and governor in São Paulo.

This raises the question of why Lula selected Dilma in the first place, when so many more experienced politicians were available. At the time it was suspected that he planned to run things from behind the scenes, using her essentially as a chief of staff. But that didn’t happen; he left her on her own to run things and went traveling around the world, even before he had to be treated for throat cancer.

Ab’Sáber speculates that Dilma may have been a mother image to Lula whose own mother had taken care of him so well when his father abandoned the family. Perhaps he felt that the country would be safe in her hands. The experienced Workers Party politicians Lula might have chosen were mostly men. But Ab’Sáber concedes that “it is difficult, even for an analyst, to believe that such traditional and prosaic psychoanalytic motives could have had such an impact on public history.”

Dilma herself has remarked that she was a strong woman surrounded by fluffy (fofos) men. But if so, this was her choice, since there are certainly plenty of strong men she could have selected to work with her. Perhaps, as a woman insecure in a role beyond her level of experience or competence, she compensated by being authoritarian and dismissive of others. At the end, she tried to save herself by bringing Lula back into the government, appointing him to the role she had held, chief of staff. But the Supreme Court blocked the appointment on the grounds that Lula was under investigation for personal corruption related to his beach house.

The impeachment of Dilma was a sorry spectacle because she is apparently personally honest and many of her persecutors certainly are not. But Dilma’s cheating on the fiscal responsibility laws is actually worse for the country than accepting personal payoffs or “tips” as the Brazilians call them.

Without fiscal responsibility, Brazil could easily slide back into the quagmire of hyperinflation and dysfunctionality. As President of Brazil, and as former president of the national oil company, Dilma has a heavy burden of responsibility for the massive corruption uncovered by the Federal Police and the courts.

Lula could also have been impeached for the systematic payoffs to congresspersons during his administration. But he was popular and his chief of staff, José Dirceu, took the rap for him. For Lula, the buck stopped with Dirceu. The leaders of the Dilma impeachment, many of whom were former allies abandoning a sinking ship, hope it will stop with Dilma.


Tales Ab’Saber, Lulismo: carisma pop e cultura anticrítica. Amazon Kindle Edition, 2015.

Tales Ab’Saber, Dilma Rousseff e o ódio político. Amazon Kindle Edition, 2015.

Ted Goertzel and Paulo Roberto de Almeida, eds., The Drama of Brazilian Politics from 1815 to 2015. Amazon Kindle Edition, 2015.

The Ritual Sacrifice of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

Ted Goertzel, Ph.D., has retired as professor in the Sociology Department at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. He is the author of a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, available in English and in Portuguese. He is best reached by email at and his WEB page can be found at


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