El estado de excepción como regla

In recent years, Walter Benjamin’s illumination
that ‘‘the state of exception has become the rule’’
has been reactivated by several authors who have
seen in contemporary politics a trivialization of
situations of emergency. Instead of accepting
prima facie the banality of the exception, we
submit it to an empirical analysis to show its
complexity and ambiguity. Our case study is the
political management of the worst natural
catastrophe in modern Venezuelan history: the
1999 Tragedia caused by massive landslides
triggered by heavy rains on the same day that the
country’s new constitution was voted. A state of
emergency was proclaimed and militarization of the
disaster area followed, but instead of being feared
or denounced, this governmental response
appeared to be desired by the majority of the
population. The army, under the leadership of
President–Colonel Hugo Cha´vez, embodied the
regeneration of the nation, redeemed from the
corruption of the preceding regime and united
through communion in solidarity with the victims.
Arbitrary violence and ordinary looting eventually
occurred, but the dominant moral sentiment
expressed at the time was deep compassion. The
1999 Venezuelan scene is, thus, exemplary of a
more general phenomenon, described by Claude
Lefort as ‘‘the permanence of the theologicalpolitical
in modern democracies,’’ for which the
humanitarian state of exception can be seen as a
paradigm. [political theology, state of exception,
politics of compassion, humanitarianism,
militarization, disaster, Venezuela]
Walter Benjamin’s illumination that the state of exception has
become the rule is historically situated. It appears, a flash
of insight, in a text that Benjamin wrote in early 1940, a few
weeks before his suicide, and published in 1942 by a California
research institute. As Hannah Arendt (1968) notes in her
obituary of the author of ‘‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’’ (Benjamin
1968b), he was profoundly and personally distressed by the violence of the
‘‘dark times,’’ the dramatic conditions of his exile, his roaming through an
apathetic Europe in the context of rising fascism, his internment in a French
camp after the French–British declaration of war against Germany, his escape
from Paris on the arrival of the Reich’s army, and finally the Gestapo’s
confiscation of his apartment and his library. But, following Shoshana
Felman (1999), one can assert that his work also echoes a more collective
reality: the irremediable loss of a world of which he was both witness and
victim; the advent of a new age that he saw commencing with World War I
and that was finally ushered in by the suspension of the Weimar constitution;
and, finally, humanity’s entry into a cycle in which ‘‘the art of storytelling
is finally coming to an end,’’ as he wrote (Benjamin 1968a:83). The exception
was made rule: It was, thus, a biographical as much as a historical truth,
marked by the conclusion of a process of redefining themeaning of politics in
the first half of the 20th century. To a certain extent, the entire reconstruction
of the world in the aftermath of World War II under the slogan ‘‘Never again’’
stemmed from a global striving—from a rhetorical but also a judicial and an
institutional perspective—to eliminate the very possibility of a state of exception.
Everyone knows, of course, that, in reality, counterexamples have
abounded, from totalitarian regimes in the East to dictatorships in the South
and from colonies to postcolonies. Yet, until recently, the utopia of a future
planetary democracy based on a revived Western model could still prevail.
The banality of the exception
This supposed ‘‘law of history’’ has been recently challenged, to the point of
trivializing the idea that humankind could again be living in times when the
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
Universite´ de Paris–Nord
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
Humanitarian exception as the rule:
The political theology of the 1999 Tragedia in Venezuela
AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 389 – 405, ISSN 0094-0496, electronic
ISSN 1548-1425. A 2005 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
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exception becomes the rule. With this new awareness,many
observers see the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the
extralegal conditions of the fight against terrorism, rapidly
transformed into a U.S.-led war against the ‘‘Axis of
Evil,’’ as a historical break. These circumstances paved the
way for what John Armitage describes as ‘‘foundations for
the state and purposes of a state of emergency’’ (2002:27)
and enabled the United States to ‘‘regain its global sovereignty,
if only for the duration of the current emergency,’’ as
George Steinmetz (2003:323) puts it. In these conditions, the
surprising return to grace of the work of Carl Schmitt,
theoretician of the state of exception, who for a long time
was disqualified for his philosophical justification of the
Nazi regime and his personal compromises with its representatives,
seems particularly significant. As Bryan Turner
notes, ‘‘While Ju¨rgen Habermas expressed the hope that the
Anglo-Saxon world would escape contagion from the
Schmittian revival, his optimism was probably premature’’
(2002:103). In its most radical form, the thesis of the exception
as the rule, nevertheless, transcends the circumstances
of the fall of the New York towers and U.S. imperial
policy. For Giorgio Agamben, whose work is the new reference
on the matter, ‘‘the deliberate creation of a permanent
state of emergency (even if it is not declared in
the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices
of contemporary states, including those called democratic’’
(2003:11–12). In his perspective, this evolution is
not recent; it has unfolded, uninterrupted, throughout the
past century: ‘‘Faced with the irresistible advance of what
has been defined as a ‘world-wide civil war’, the state of
exception tends increasingly to be presented as the dominant
paradigm of government in contemporary policies’’
(Agamben 2003:11–12). Therefore, from Adolf Hitler to
George W. Bush a continuity exists—if not historical, then,
at least, genealogical.
The social sciences, however, cannot take the terms
of the discussion posed in this way at face value. They have
to ‘‘problematize’’ it, in the sense given to this word by
Michel Foucault (1994:670) in one of his last interviews.
For Foucault, ‘‘problematizing does not mean representing
a pre-existing object nor creating in the discourse
an object that does not exist; it is the set of all discursive
and non-discursive practices that include something in
the game of true and false and constitute it as an object
for thought’’ (1994:670). To problematize the exception
in contemporary societies is, thus, to wonder about both
the supposed normalization of the state of exception and
the generalization of discourse on exception. The two go
together: Facts cannot be dissociated from discourse. In
this respect, one can talk of the banality of the exception:
not to assert that exception has become the rule but to
question its presentation as such.
To transcend what could rapidly become a play of
mirrors between reality and its construction, scholars need
to put the theoretical work to a sort of empirical test. Beyond
the assertion of a trivialization of the situation of exception,
they need to ask how and when does a state of emergency
come into being in contemporary societies? To
which observable realities does the decisionist conception
of law correspond? How can the full complexity of
the significations and consequences of the issue of sovereignty
be grasped? These are the questions underlying our
study of the political management of a natural disaster in
Venezuela. Our aim is twofold: First, to apply the tools of
political philosophy to report on a particular time in history—
the neo-Bolivarian ‘‘moment,’’ to paraphrase John Pocock
(1975)—generally conceived of in the language of pure
emotion, whether compassionate or political; and, second,
and in a sense symmetrically—from the singular to the
general and perhaps from the ‘‘ethnographic’’ to the ‘‘anthropological,’’
in the sense of Claude Le´vi-Strauss (1958)—
to dissolve the homogeneity of the category of ‘‘exception.’’
A political anthropology of exception is, thus, based on the
dual requirement of making both historical and ethnographic
sense of singular situations and, what is more, of
doing so through what Walter Mignolo (2000) calls ‘‘local
histories’’ grasped in—but also beyond—‘‘global designs’’:
a ‘‘border thinking’’ that departs from the traditional
periphery theory. Understanding the Venezuela of Hugo
Cha´vez, in particular, often treated with irony in the international
press as an exotic and anachronistic oddity, calls
for this shift of perspective to avoid both culturalistic prejudices
and abstract reasoning.
For Schmitt, ‘‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception’’
(1988:5). The exception is, hence, what defines
sovereignty and stems from the decision: The three terms
are linked. More than simply a legal notion, the exception
is a theoretical concept on which Schmitt, the author of
Political Theology (1988), hesitates lexically, using almost
interchangeably the terms Ausnahmezustand, Ausnahmefall,
Notstand, and Notfall, which can be translated as
‘‘situation of exception,’’ ‘‘case of exception,’’ ‘‘situation of
emergency,’’ and ‘‘case of emergency,’’ respectively. This
indeterminacy underscores the delimitation of the issue
not by law, of which it constitutes a negation, but, more
pragmatically, by the ‘‘situation that makes the question
of the subject of sovereignty topical,’’ that is, that ‘‘decides
as much on the existence of the case of extreme necessity
as on the measures to take to put an end to it’’ (Schmitt
1988:16–17). In its most obvious form, the state of exception
is characterized, in the presence of a threat to national
public order, especially war, by a suspension of constitutional
guarantees and the granting of full powers to
the sovereign, often a military authority. Compared with
this traditional schema, the contemporary state of emergency
has two variants: First, it does not necessarily imply
a full-blown war but simply the presence of what Ulrich
Beck (2002) qualifies as a ‘‘threat’’ or ‘‘risk,’’ of which
American Ethnologist n Volume 32 Number 3 August 2005
September 11, 2001, could be seen as the paradigmatic fact;
and, second, it implies not the abolition of the law but,
rather, an undermining of certain rights, as Judith Butler
(2002) notes with respect to ‘‘indefinite detention’’ of socalled
terrorist suspects in the Guantanamo U.S. prison
camp. In other words, the state of exception has to be conceived
henceforth as a condition that has been modulated
and, therefore, euphemized in both its causes and its effects.
In this context of a transformation of the practical
terms of the traditional state of siege, President Cha´vez’s
response to the December 1999 floods in Vargas, near the
Venezuelan capital, is fully meaningful. This natural disaster,
in which thousands of people died and tens of
thousands were displaced, is generally considered the
most dramatic event in Venezuela’s recent history (Casas
1999). Significantly, ‘‘la Tragedia’’ is the allusive yet explicit
expression commonly used to refer to it. Faced with
this exceptionally serious trial, the sovereign, a colonel,
had to introduce exceptional measures. Yet he was supposed
to do so in a proportional way, so to speak. A state of
emergency was proclaimed, but basic rights were maintained.
Militarization of the disaster area was total, but
the army remained in its barracks where it even took care
of the victims. In fact, it was the tension between compassion
and order, rather than that between the dialectic
of the law and of anomie, that characterized this historical
What made la Tragedia a singular—in both senses of
the word—event was that it produced what we suggest
calling a ‘‘humanitarian state of exception.’’ It was not in
the name of a threat to public security (as, in a classical
sense, a declaration of war or, from a more contemporary
perspective, a risk of terrorist attack would pose) but in the
name of the emotion generated by the cataclysm and its
human repercussions that a state of emergency was imposed
throughout the country to make rescue operations
more efficient. It was not the fear of danger that authorized
exceptional measures but sympathy for the disaster
victims that called for and supported them. That is the
profound originality of the situation: Far from being the
decision of a single sovereign, the state of exception was
desired by large segments of society, transported by a wave
of generosity toward the victims, the damnificados, and,
paradoxically, by a feeling of trust in the president himself.
Normally dreaded and denounced, the state of exception
was wanted. Our task is, thus, to account for this unusual
combination of generosity and trust in emergency, this
desire for exception, so to speak, in light of the country’s
recent history. To understand this exceptional moment,
we inscribe it in its historical context and relate it to
the prevailing mystique of power. Coming after a long
period of progressive deterioration in the credibility of the
state, the Cha´vez regime was legitimized by an ideology
espousing regeneration of the nation and redemption of
the people. Coincidentally—and symbolically—the natural
disaster in Vargas occurred on the same day as the vote on
the new constitution.
We conducted empirical work from January 2000
to September 2003. It included in-depth interviews with
voluntary as well as professional rescuers from three
different institutions, numerous rescued persons from
middle-class and working-class families affected by the
disaster, private medical doctors and state social workers
involved in the emergency phase, and, finally, military officers,
civil servants, and government representatives and
ministers. We carried out participant-observation in two
military forts used as refuges for the victims. We also collected
articles, reports, films, and photos from the newspapers
and websites cited throughout this article. These
data circumscribe what appears to have been a humanitarian
exception. A literally extraordinary situation, one
may be tempted to think, considering both the circumstances
of the proclamation of the state of emergency and
the feelings legitimizing it. The situation in Venezuela
seems unique, with characteristics that cannot be extrapolated
beyond that country’s borders—and this is precisely
how the national image was constructed in the Venezuelan
public sphere: on the basis of a model of exception. Yet, if
one analyzes the place occupied today by humanitarianism
in the governance of the world, especially in war
zones (Macfarlane 1999), and the way in which military
interventions are justified by moral humanitarian arguments
(Woodward 2001)—as in Somalia or Kosovo—and
in which humanitarian organizations accompany the deployment
of military operations (Pugh 1998)—as in Afghanistan
or Iraq—the Venezuelan case warrants particular
attention more for its exemplarity than for its exceptionality.
That a state of emergency can be pronounced in the
name of humanitarian considerations is perhaps essentially
the manifestation of a profound truth of the contemporary
world (Fassin 2004): As a last resort, when ‘‘the
simple fact of living,’’ as Benjamin put it, is under threat in
human communities, whether confined to refugee camps
or subjected to the whims of nature, humanitarianism
always justifies a form of exception.
The natural disaster as a political event
For a long time, ‘‘the event’’ has remained outside anthropological
inquiry. To be sure, this lack of concern is not
unique in the social sciences. One could easily demonstrate
that, for sociological method, the social fact often
transcends the contingency of the event, just as, for scientific
historiography, statistical series, the diachronic perspective,
and the study of mentalities tend to dissolve the
temporality of the event (Bensa and Fassin 2002). As far as
anthropological work is concerned, whether in the light of
big theories such as Marxism and structuralism or from the
Humanitarian exception as the rule n American Ethnologist
approach of social change mainly focused on historical
forces, the event has generally been absent. It has been
invisible because it has not been interpretable. New perspectives,
however, have been emerging in the past few
decades and, especially, in the past few years. Even if its
significance in the anthropological field should not be
exaggerated, ‘‘September 11’’—if only by its designation—
was clearly a watershed in anthropologists’ work, especially
in the United States (Mascia-Lees and Lees 2002). But what
is an event? To stick to a simple definition, we suggest
characterizing it as a temporally circumscribed fact that
delimits two states of the world (whether local or global):
one before and the other after. In this respect, December 15,
1999, in Venezuela clearly had a before and an after.
‘‘Y el A´ vila bajo´ al mar’’ [and Avila Mountain—
2,000 meters (about 6,500 feet) in elevation—plunged
into the sea]. This was how the daily El Nacional described
the exceptional violence of the landslides and rivers of
mud caused by torrential rains in the coastal area of Venezuela.
In ten days, 1,200 centimeters (about 472 inches)
of water, four times the potentially dangerous threshold,
fell on the cordillera bordering the coastline and, especially,
on the slopes of el A´ vila, which overlooks the city
of Caracas on one side and descends toward the state of
Vargas on the other. Two phenomena combined to produce
the disaster. First, the swelling of the soil from so much
moisture caused instability and landslides (derrumbes) that
carried away entire neighborhoods. The poorest quarters,
often composed of illegal housing (ranchos) and built on
slopes known to be unfit for construction, were the areas
most exposed to this type of risk. Second, with the buildup
of water, swollen rivers carrying rocks and mud (deslaves)
flooded their banks, gushing through streets and between
houses. Even established residential areas (urbanizaciones)
and luxury hotels in coastal resorts at the foot of the mountain
were flooded, although, once again, the illegal houses
on the fringes of the city were by far the most fragile structures
(see Figure 1). As Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna
Hoffman write, ‘‘The conjunction of a human population
and a potentially destructive agent does not inevitably produce
a disaster: a disaster becomes unavoidable in the
context of a historically produced pattern of ‘vulnerability’
evidenced in the location, infrastructure, socio-political
organization, production and distribution systems, and
ideology of a society’’ (2002:3). In this case, as in many
Latin American cities, land development and environmental
policies produced the objective conditions for disaster,
which may be a matter of hazard but are nonetheless
highly predictable from a risk-exposure point of view,
especially in areas of unregulated construction on the outskirts
of large cities (Bolivar 1995). Every year in the rainy
season, minor catastrophes occur, the victims of which are
too few in number and too illegitimate to be noticed. The
people whose houses are carried away by a landslide or a
river of mud normally receive very little support or compassion
from the nation.
In December 1999, two differences—one essentially
quantitative, the other primarily qualitative—turned a
natural catastrophe into a national tragedy: its spectacular
violence with its high number of casualties, injured, and
homeless and its apparently indiscriminate character, as
it affected not only the poor but also the rich. The
intensity of the experience was described by a nun working
as a nurse in a Roman Catholic hospital in the state
of Vargas:
Within the community we experienced fear and even a
sort of terror, to the extent that some sisters said we
shouldn’t go to sleep. At 10 p.m. we went out onto the
terrace of the hospital and at around 11.30 we started to
hear a rumbling with a terrible echo that was difficult to
locate.We knew that something terrible was happening.
There was a huge crash and at that moment the lights
went out. From then on we heard the cries of people
running in the streets to escape the fury of the river and
trying to save their loved ones engulfed by the water.
It was a mix of water, soil, sand, stones, trees, houses,
people, animals, vehicles, all sorts of rubble about fifteen
meters high and moving along at about one hundred
kilometres [about 62 miles] per hour. We felt
destruction and death very close to us. We spoke to the
mother superior who encouraged us to put ourselves in
the hands of Fate, to pray with all our hearts and to follow
the authorities’ recommendations. [Sanchez 2000]
The idea prevailed that everyone was affected, as attested
by the same nun’s description of the victims taken into her
hospital after the disaster: ‘‘Among them were all sorts of
people, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, good and
bad, black and white, priests and brigands’’ (Sanchez 2000).
The intensity of the disaster and the sharing of the misfortune
combined in a feeling of national communion that
fueled solidarity and compassion, at least in the first few
days. ‘‘Everyone is a victim of Vargas’’ is how Venezuelan
society’s feelings could be summed up regarding what the
newspaper El Universal described a month later as the
‘‘gran tragedia.’’
December 15 was chosen in the records of the disaster
as the date of the fateful moment. Despite some precursory
signs in the days leading up to the event, such as
localized cases of houses collapsing and a few accidental
deaths, it was unquestionably the increasingly heavy
rains on December 14 and the floods on the evening of
December 15 that caused the latter day to be seen as the
real turning point in the drama. But what made the date
itself a particularly potent political symbol was its coincidence
with another key event, this time perfectly predictable:
the national elections that were to enable the people
to voice their opinions on the constitution designed to lay
American Ethnologist n Volume 32 Number 3 August 2005
Figure 1. Urban and periurban areas underwater. Mud reached ten meters in depth in some places. Photo by Jose´ Manuel Da Silva.
Humanitarian exception as the rule n American Ethnologist
the foundations of the new ‘‘Bolivarian republic’’ dreamed
of by President Cha´vez. The head of state, leader of the
abortive but popular February 4, 1992, coup d’e´tat, had
been democratically elected on December 6, 1998, after
a campaign in which he advocated founding the nation
anew (this foundation could, however, be historically relativized,
considering that Cha´vez’s was the 26th constitution
of the postcolonial era). The president’s plans were
inspired by the epic figure of Simon Bolivar, known as
the ‘‘Libertador,’’ who had died in 1830 in Colombia but
whose ashes had been repatriated to Venezuela in 1842.
Bolivar, the ‘‘father of the nation,’’ served as a guide for
the definition of a new social order that was to eject the
‘‘corrupt oligarchy’’ in power for decades and instate the
authority of the ‘‘sovereign people’’ robbed of their prerogatives
by the previous regime.
Cha´vez, thus, became the depository of a ‘‘moral power,’’
along with the executive, legislative, and judicial powers
in the representation of political life (Porras Poncelo´n
2000). The Constituent National Assembly that Cha´vez
had convoked a few months after taking power had implemented
this program in a document consisting of 350 articles,
which was submitted to the electorate for approval.
The 88 percent of votes in favor of the new constitution
were a clear indication of the broad consensus that Cha´vez
enjoyed (despite the 63 percent abstention rate). He literally
embodied the regeneration of a Venezuela that observers,
politicians, and ordinary citizens saw as derelict.
Oil money flowed freely, and, as the majority of the
population sank into poverty, a corrupt elite reaped all of
the benefits. Borrowing a term coined by political analyst
Juan Pablo Pe´rez Alfonso (1976), who in the seventies
described oil as a source of both natural wealth and
corruption, Fernando Coronil (1997) talks of ‘‘Devil’s excrement,’’
thus, qualifying the moral decay experienced by
the majority of Venezuelans at the end of that political
period. In this context, Cha´vez, ‘‘enchanter of the masses,’’
according to Eleonora Bruzual, and ‘‘magician of emotions,’’
in Luis Jose´ Uzca´tegui’s words (Langue 2002), was
the one who claimed both to revive a glorious past and to
establish a new ethic. In mystical terms and Christlike
symbols, with endless speeches full of religious references,
he offered the wounded and divided nation a prospect of
atonement. The state of emergency was the price to pay
for it.
Thus, in the same event and on the same day, la
Tragedia combined two phenomena: communion in misfortune,
which united the entire country because it struck all
categories of society indiscriminately, and redemption
through the ballot box, which, by the grace of constitutional
amendments, signified a promise of national regeneration.
To cope with affliction, it was, thus, the ‘‘sacred union’’ of
the populace that was invoked. The rhetoric clearly related
to a political theology in the Schmittian sense. The figure of
the head who decides to assume full powers in a time of
danger to save the threatened fatherland is fully legitimate
in this context. It is a kind of reminiscence of a time when
the ‘‘king’s two bodies,’’ in Ernst Kantorowicz’s (1957)
words, manifested both the immanence and the transcendence
of power. But on this fateful day, the sovereign also
had to show the victims his full sympathy. Considering the
circumstances, he had to be seen as both dramatically
authoritarian and profoundly compassionate.
The strength of humanitarianism
Over the past two decades humanitarian intervention has
played an increasingly large part in the management of
world affairs (Duffield et al. 2001). Compared with the
traditional model of the Red Cross, intimately linked to
the military scene and supposedly neutral with respect
to the antagonists, the diverse contemporary forms of
humanitarian action have some difficulty situating themselves
in relation to military actors (Nederveen Pieterse
1997). From Bosnia to Afghanistan, Rwanda, or Iraq the
very notion of ‘‘military–humanitarian’’ intervention has
become commonplace in the political rhetoric of justification
of what are called—a bit less often than in the past—
‘‘just wars’’ (Walzer 1992). Two types of institution stand
out in the global development of the ‘‘new humanitarian
order’’ (Minear and Wiess 1992): nongovernmental organizations,
for instance, Me´decins sans Frontie`res and Me´decins
du Monde, and UN agencies, primarily the High
Commission for Refugees (Natsios 1995). Although scholars
have shown an interest in these obviously legitimate
actors, they have not paid much attention to governmental
humanitarian policy—which often proves, moreover, to be
closely linked to military practices. Venezuela’s history
provides an illustration of this point.
What exactly is it that we here call ‘‘humanitarianism’’?
Empirically, it is a flexible concept, a sort of ethical object
with a high value added that many agents use to justify their
actions. As a convention—albeit an empirically constructed
one—we can suggest three main criteria. The first criterion
concerns timing, for humanitarianism is always a matter of
emergency. The suddenness of an event requires immediate
action, unlike conditions addressed by other, more longterm
approaches, such as those relating to what is commonly
known as ‘‘development’’ (Ferguson 1994). The
second criterion concerns the object of humanitarian mobilization,
which consists, above all, in saving lives. That
humanitarian efforts are invested with such a high level of
legitimacy stems precisely from the claim that they save
people from deaths caused by starvation, disease, or injury
(Agamben 1997). The third criterion relates to the action of
humanitarianism, grounded in a moral sentiment, in the
classical English philosophers’ sense. It acts in the registers
of emotions and values, of what people feel and believe
American Ethnologist n Volume 32 Number 3 August 2005
(Boltanski 1993). It is these three criteria that are found in
the ‘‘management of the crisis,’’ as the Venezuelan defense
minister put it on December 24. Let us take a closer look at
these components and see them at work.
During the days following the floods, most Venezuelan
newspapers ran the headline ‘‘Emergencia nacional.’’
In this type of disaster, emergency is, indeed, an obvious
fact that imposes itself on all. But emergency is also a
political act decided by public authorities. Remarkably, a
state of emergency had already been decreed in the
limited territory of Vargas on December 6 to deal with
the impending disaster, and the first army battalion had
been sent out on December 11 to rescue 500 affected
people (Rodriguez 1999). Yet just after December 15, the
talk was of tens of thousands of victims and of the inability
of obtaining more precise estimates of the human cost of
the floods because of the virtual inexistence of communications
(see Figure 2). On December 16, as the president
called for national unity and the Council of Ministers
declared a state of emergency in five states, the first rescue
operations were chaotic. In an interview he gave us, a firstaid
worker testified,
During the massive evacuation of the population there
was total disorganization and the victims’ families
were lost. The airport was chaotic since, instead of
closing its doors as protocol stipulates in times of
emergency, the victims from nearby neighborhoods
were allowed in. It should have remained functional
and thus become the command center. Instead, the
barrio went into the airport.
The minister of the interior’s emergency committee, consisting
of civilians, is supposed to intervene in this type
of case and to coordinate operations within the airport,
ensuring that helicopters and airplanes constantly rotate
in and out to evacuate victims. The lack of means and the
absence of organization, however, made rescue operations
difficult. As the head of this committee told us, ‘‘The management
of this disaster was a disaster.’’ On December 17,
noting the Civil Defense Force’s inability to deal with the
situation, the Constituent National Assembly met and,
‘‘exercising its original constituent powers, decreed a state
of emergency throughout the Republic for the duration of
the disaster’’ (Delgado 1999). Without undermining the
Figure 2. Military personnel and civilians finding their way along roads changed into mud rivers, December 16, 1999. From Y el Avila bajo´ al mar, p. 30.
Courtesy of Los Libros de El Nacional, Carcacas.
Humanitarian exception as the rule n American Ethnologist
guarantees provided for in the old constitution, given that
the new one had not yet come into force, the assembly
‘‘authorized the President to adopt the measures that would
prove necessary to avoid extensive damage’’ (Delgado 1999).
At night the disaster area was totally militarized. The first
phase in the aftermath of the floods was known as the
‘‘emergency’’ and lasted until December 27. During this
phase, 13,200 members of the three military forces and the
gendarmerie were mobilized as well as airplanes, helicopters,
and boats (see Figure 3). Their mission was to transfer
victims to safety, to meet victims’ basic needs, to collect
and distribute humanitarian aid, to administer medical
care and remove corpses, and to clear the drainage systems
and the streets (Corpovargas 2000:30). Emergency as
both a temporal condition and a legal procedure became a
justification in itself for all rescue-related actions: ‘‘We are
in a state of emergency and we can do anything we want,’’
commented a security officer during one of our interviews.
We discuss the sometimes disastrous consequences of this
self-proclaimed arbitrary authority below. But first let us
consider the convergence of the sentiment of emergency
and the state of emergency, of the humanitarian gesture
and the legal act, all in the name of the overriding need to
rescue the victims.
‘‘The desperate wish to save lives was immense,’’
relates ‘‘disaster expert’’ Enrique Mart?´n Cuervo (2000) in
a report for the rescue organization Humboldt. In the
first days, the objective was to evacuate those people who
had managed to climb onto roofs, terraces, or balconies and
were picked up by airplanes and helicopters and those
who had been able to reach beaches covered in alluvial
deposits and were picked up by lifeboats. A young woman
told us how she thought she was going to die: ‘‘I had water
up to the waist. It was flowing very fast. My skin was almost
rotten.’’ Testimonies describing the conditions of survival
in the catastrophically flooded area proliferated. A 12-yearold
boy, discovered by chance in a poor neighborhood,
was saved by firemen: ‘‘He was walled in by the remains
of the former Caracas-La Guaira road,’’ explained a nurse
(Davies et al. 1999). This account, like many others reported
by journalists, shows just how close to death the survivors
had been. The precariousness of their existence and their
Figure 3. Air force helicopter helping to evacuate victims. From Y el Avila bajo´ al mar, p. 77. Courtesy of Los Libros de El Nacional, Caracas.
American Ethnologist n Volume 32 Number 3 August 2005
stripped lives were the very substance of humanitarian
intervention, especially given subsequent counts of the
number of survivors. The victims were, above all, physical
bodies in a natural state of basic need and vulnerability. In
this situation the illusion of equality of human beings in
the face of misfortune but also of compassion was a powerful
driver of collective action. A doctor explained the phenomenon
to us as follows: ‘‘All social levels were mixed,
rich and poor and we treated everyone in the same way.’’
Yet the reality was more complex.
Even if rescuers did not seem to distinguish between
victims as they were rescuing them, and even if rich men
readily used their personal helicopters to participate in the
evacuation of victims without regard to class distinction,
as soon as the first emergency phase was over, hierarchical
values prevailed once more, almost naturally. Swamped by
the number of victims accommodated in refuges in the
capital, the military rapidly organized massive transfers to
the interior, hundreds of kilometers from the disaster area.
Two women evacuated by the army to Barquisimeto told
us about their arrival at the airport of this town in the
cordillera, east of Caracas. One woman, from a workingclass
family in a poor area of Vargas, was taken in at the
military garrison, where she was able to wash and warm
herself. Having nowhere to go, she and her children were
then housed and fed there for several months, in exchange
for performing cleaning work. The second woman, a
member of the middle class living in a residential coastal
neighborhood, met an engineer at the military fort, who
was participating in the rescue operations. Feeling a social
proximity to the woman and her daughter, he suggested
that they take a shower in his office. From there, the
woman called friends, who lent her a house in Barquisimeto.
Her other daughter, who lived in the United States,
hurriedly flew to Venezuela and hired two cars that she
and relatives used to take her mother and sister back to the
capital. These examples show just how quickly the bare
lives of victims are resocialized along the usual lines of
inequality, once the rescue stage is over (see Figure 4).
‘‘We suffered like the poor. We gave them everything
we had, without expecting anything in return. . . . We were
with the poor people and, like them, we experienced pain
and need’’ (Sanchez 2000). This is how nuns belonging to a
charitable order described their experience of the disaster.
The most prevalent moral sentiment, in those times of
misfortune, was clearly compassion, in the literal sense of
communion in suffering, of sympathy in proximity. For
rescue workers in the field, compassion was undoubtedly
predominant: All with whom we spoke told of how they
were personally affected by what was happening to their
fellow citizens and of how they never stinted in their
efforts to save anyone they could. But, for ‘‘this nice lesson
in solidarity that Venezuelans are busy teaching their
leaders’’ (El Nacional 1999) to have substance, the entire
nation had to share in the empathy. Here the media played
a key role by transforming the abstract reality of death
tolls and victim statistics into dramatic individual testimonies.
The most heartrending for Venezuelan society
was certainly the story of little Maria Eugenia, whose
minute-by-minute rescue, shown live on television, corresponded
to a dramatic form of mediatization that, since
the eruption of the Armero volcano in Colombia and the
miraculous rescue in that case of a little girl in front
the world media, had become the norm. On the morning
of December 16, a cameraman filming a mudslide on the
car park of a residential building noticed a child’s arm
waving from under a heap of rubble. He called for help,
and the building’s inhabitants extricated the child as fast
as they could while the cameraman kept on filming. His
footage, ending with the image of the little girl snuggled
up in a rescuer’s arms, was shown repeatedly on television
during the next few days (Defensa Civil Tachira 1999–2000).
Subsequent episodes of this drama were no less moving:
Maria Eugenia’s brother was discovered alive in a tree,
whereas her mother was never seen again, and her little
dog, shown to the public in a family photo, was brought
to her a few weeks later by a man who had found him.
The question of the gaze, and of the mass media’s,
especially television’s, ability to communicate events in a
direct way, is essential to consider if one wishes to apprehend
the emotional surge that united the country and
transfigured the nation. It is the gaze that brings people
together and through which one feels compassion. This is
the movement that spawns humanitarian aid. Along with
more than $7 million in donations collected during the first
five days of the disaster—which, according to the local
press, bore witness to the Venezuelan people’s generosity—
international contributions were seen as so many ‘‘gestures
of friendship’’ (El Nacional 1999). The governments
of the United States and France were the first to provide
aid, followed by the UN Development Programme, the
Inter-American Development Bank, and nongovernmental
organizations, led by Caritas. This demonstration of international
solidarity with the victims was hardly dented
by Cha´vez’s highly symbolic decision to deny U.S. ships
berthing rights in Venezuelan waters, in the name of national
sovereignty. The president, moreover, never missed
an opportunity to appear physically in the field among
the rescuers and in the company of the damnificados, comforting
them with his charismatic presence and showing
the chief’s compassion for his people.
In cases of exception such as that described above,
humanitarianism creates an unequal relationship between
helper and helped. This has been evidenced in many places
where the emergency of a disaster has reduced the victims’
condition to the simple fact of living and generated ambiguous
currents of pity and solidarity. Alice Fothergill
(2003), thus, reports how women affected by the 1997
Humanitarian exception as the rule n American Ethnologist
Figure 4. The most incisive of Vanezuelan cartoonists illustrates the risk of being poor: ‘‘One never knows if one will die of hunger, flood, or torture.’’ Courtesy
of Pedro Leon Zapata.
American Ethnologist n Volume 32 Number 3 August 2005
Grand Forks, North Dakota, floods, mostly from the middle
classes, suddenly felt doubly distressed by the ‘‘stigma of
charity’’ when they became dependent on others’ help.
They even said that the experience had given them an idea
of what life must be like for a poor family living on welfare.
This stigma was, self-evidently, spread unequally in
Venezuelan society, as seen in the case of the two women
evacuated to Barquisimeto. To the Venezuelan president’s
probable credit, he weighed the social injustice of the
humanitarian gesture that compounds the shared misfortune
of a natural disaster and proposed to reverse the
stigma by renaming the victims. In the Spanish language,
they are called ‘‘damnificados,’’ a term that, despite its
common use, nevertheless, has a religious root connoting
damnation. To break away from this lexical ambiguity,
Cha´vez suggested in his weekly radio program Alo´
Presidente that this term be replaced by dignificados,
‘‘those whose dignity is recognized.’’ In other words,
misfortune does not debase, it elevates. In Venezuela, the
damned of the earth, the survivors, became the redeemed.
To be sure, the requalification of victims through this
religious terminology had little effect on the concrete
conditions of their confinement in military camps. More
than a name change is required to transform the reflexes
of a society regarding its poor or those of the army in a
state of emergency. The change of terminology, nonetheless,
revealed the force of Christian symbolism in the
political management of the crisis. Associating the grace
accompanying misfortune with the justification of exception,
it linked power and redemption.
The price of exception
As Candace Vogler and Patchen Markell (2003:2) assert,
violence has been at the heart of the modern social contract
from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls. This contract links a
society that agrees to delegate its power and the state that
receives it in exchange for a guarantee of greater welfare for
its citizens. For Vogler and Markell,
This is an image of redemption from violence. Casting
the state as the bringer of peace and prosperity into a
disorderly world, this picture replays, in secular terms,
the Christian theme of an epochal transformation in
the human condition that the Oxford English Dictionary
unsurprisingly lists as the first definition of
redemption: ‘‘deliverance from sin and its consequences
by the atonement of Jesus Christ’’. At the
same time, however, this is also an image in which
violence persists, though often reorganized, renamed
or repressed. [2003:2]
This is clearly the significance of the implicit contract in
the state of exception, in general, and in the one we here
qualify as humanitarian, in particular. By decreeing a state
of emergency in 1999, the Constituent National Assembly,
which at that tragic time embodied the people’s sovereignty,
gave the president of the republic not full powers—
which would have implied a suspension of constitutional
guarantees—but absolute latitude to define what ought to
be decided for the common good. The moral sentiment
binding the nation together behind its leader and the higher
demand represented by the duty to save lives justified the
state of emergency. Yet experience has shown that, even
in those situations that justify military intervention in the
name of humanitarianism, violence lies at the heart of the
exception, buried beneath ethical justifications and ready
to reveal itself to suit the circumstances. In her study of
the Canadian peacekeeping mission in Somalia, Sherene
Razack (2004) reports on the racist and criminal acts of
violence committed by the very people who came as benefactors
to that torn part of Africa. The ‘‘white knights,’’
thus, turned into ‘‘dark threats’’ to those they claimed to
rescue. The army’s intervention in the state of Vargas was
no exception to that pattern.
The violence instituted by political order as the rule of
law declined was, people said, the price to pay to avoid
greater violence—not only that of nature’s fury but also
that of the disruption of society. On December 17, the
second day of the disaster, the first signs of anomie
appeared: looting and pillaging in residential neighborhoods.
‘‘That night, the devil entered the bodies of delinquents
who, instead of thanking God for keeping them
alive, took the lives of innocent Venezuelans’’ (Mart?´n
Cuervo 2000). The feeling of insecurity grew among survivors
who tried to take refuge in public places to escape
assault. ‘‘Acts of vandalism and clashes between rival
gangs killing one another, violence and destruction of all
kinds proliferated. It was another tragedy, perhaps even
more serious than the one we had just experienced. . . . We
sought the protection of the military by all means, until on
the Tuesday we received an answer with the arrival of a
battalion of the Inteligencia Militar’’ (Sanchez 2000).
Hence, as much to maintain public order, threatened by
the anomie of the aftermath of the disaster, as to organize
aid for victims who could still be saved, the army intervened.
For many Venezuelans, the military represented a
twofold guarantee: of efficient rescue operations and of
security in the face of disorder. Yet, in reality, the roles
were shared between, on the one hand, the three military
forces—army, navy, and air force—whose main function
was organizing rescue and evacuations, and, on the other
hand, the national guard, the military police, the intelligence
services, and, under the supervision of the Ministry
of the Interior, the feared members of the Direccio´n del
Servicio de Intelligencia y Prevencio´n (DISIP), who had
been responsible for past repression.
In these conditions, proclamation of the state of
emergency appeared to be little more than a technicality,
Humanitarian exception as the rule n American Ethnologist
a practical way of managing the crisis, a necessity of common
sense to avoid the worst. Moreover, care was taken
not to strip the proclamation of its democratic presentation.
The Constituent National Assembly issued a decree
that referred, rather, to a ‘‘state of alert’’ while giving the
president all of the prerogatives he deemed useful to deal
with the gravity of the situation. Constitutional guarantees
were maintained, even if virtually no control over the
action of the ‘‘special commandos’’ in disaster areas was
provided for. The government avoided authoritarian acts
but left it to the army to recommend that inhabitants
of these areas remain indoors from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. With
a curfew, thus, effectively established, soldiers were ordered
to open fire on anyone moving about at night
and refusing to show his or her identity documents (see
Figure 5). In other words, a state of emergency, never
officially pronounced, was actually in force (Rondo´n de
Sanso´ 1999)—not de jure but de facto. The minister of the
interior seemed to recognize this when he publicly used
the term declaration of emergency. Thus, for a period of
several weeks in the devastated area of the Venezuelan
state, the military and civilian law enforcement forces
had extensive powers. Not only did society not object but
it also considered this demonstration of authority both
desirable and necessary. Security and humanitarianism
seemed to be linked. The consensus about the necessity
of the exception was national.
Beyond this pragmatic justification, the decision to
institute a state of emergency can also be linked to the
political history of the country. As Minister of Justice Jose´
Vicente Rangel said on January 11, concerning violent acts
committed by the military, ‘‘In Venezuela we live in a
culture of arbitrary power that cannot be stopped overnight
by changing the government or the constitution’’
(Delgado 2000). Since its independence in 1830, the country
had been governed, at least until 1959, by generals and
military juntas. The very construction of the nation was
closely bound to this singular experience of the army’s
power (Coronil 1997). Yet this evident continuity, in the
long run, should not mask the profound change introduced
by Cha´vez (Norden 1998). First, he came to power
democratically in 1998, after his abortive coup d’e´tat in
Figure 5. Paratroopers patrolling in search of looters in Tanaguarenas, Edo. Vargas. Photo by Jose´ Manuel Da Silva.
American Ethnologist n Volume 32 Number 3 August 2005
1992, and the paradox is that this putschist was seen as
the savior of democracy by a vast majority of Venezuelans,
who reelected him in 2000. Second, his approach was the
revival not of the traditional caudillism of his predecessors
but of a revolutionary Bolivarianism, product of an ideological
reconstruction that skipped back a century and a half
to revive the mythical origins of Venezuela. This is why
Angela Zago (1998) calls Cha´vez and his comrades in arms
‘‘rebel angels.’’ Once again, note the register of faith that
draws on the immaterial sources of religion and the nation.
Events were, nevertheless, to put this mystique of
power to a severe test. The soldiers and other military personnel
who had come as saviors soon turned into criminals
in the eyes of the majority of the people. In a report headed
Emergencia en la emergencia, a Venezuelan human rights
organization, Programa Venezolano de Educacio´n Accio´n
en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA; 1999), denounced violent
acts, including summary executions and kidnapping, committed
by the police and army in Vargas province. A witness
reported having heard members of the police force talking
about how they had used truncheons or baseball bats to
execute those they identified as ‘‘looters, rapists, or thieves.’’
These weapons produced marks on the bodies similar to
those that ‘‘could be caused by a death due to the disaster.’’
As an extra precaution, the police buried their victims in
‘‘communal graves’’ (PROVEA 1999). Several testimonies
corroborate this account of summary justice with its organized
elimination of evidence. In such contexts of arbitrariness,
however, mistakes, if one can call them that, can
happen, as in the case of a young man who was mistaken
for a thief and shot dead when hewent to fetch his belongings
from his flat. The police and military forces eliminated not
only delinquents caught red-handed, for instance, looting a
supermarket or a home, but also those with whom they had
had previous dealings and who were taken fromtheir homes,
never to be seen again. In addition to this violent repression,
they participated in looting and pillaging. Several witnesses
reported police and soldiers visiting residential neighborhoods
and collecting a sort of war booty. One witness we
interviewed suggested that complex games were devised
between the different groups. For instance, officers of the
DISIP, called to an army captain’s home that was being
looted, found a group of about 20 parachutists on site busily
stripping the house on the pretext of searching for weapons.
A civilian rescuer who remained there told us afterward,
During the night there were continuous gunshots. It
was a shootout. The DISIP against the malandros.
The army against the malandros. They were all
looting. . . . I’ve got photos of soldiers busy looting. I
did the first report on human rights violations but I
didn’t go to testify. I was scared the military would
come and kill me because there were three of us but I
was the only one with a camera and they knew it.
One morning we heard a noise, someone forcing
doors open. It was the soldiers with a major. They
were trying to break open a safe. My colleague was
armed, he shouted to them to get out and then I saw
a row of little soldiers with red berets coming forward.
I took pictures of them while my friend held
their attention.
The chief of operations of maritime customs, Colonel
Manuel Carpio, officially acknowledged that of the 64 individuals
arrested during the looting of the harbor area,
most were ‘‘wearing uniforms of the police and fire brigade,
and even of the national guard’’ (Mayorca 1999).
Officially, because of a lack of space locally, the looters were
not put in prison but returned to their respective units.
In these circumstances the government had little
room to maneuver between its concern to maintain military
order in the disaster area and its recognition of acts of
violence by the security forces, between its support for the
powerful police and army units and its response to the
accusations of human rights organizations, and between
the application of the state of emergency and the maintenance
of the rule of law. On this tightrope, the position of
the president and his government was particularly tricky.
Not only did these events take place at the very time that
the new constitution was supposed to guarantee more
efficient functioning of democracy than in the past but
the disaster also received extensive media coverage in the
international public sphere in which the head of state
wanted his country to be seen as a model. Cha´vez intervened
personally on January 16, 2000, in his weekly radio
dialogue with listeners: ‘‘There is absolutely no proof of
human rights violations, only speculations.’’ To show both
his skepticism and his good faith, he added: ‘‘Take me
blindfolded and handcuffed to talk to the witnesses’’
(Cardona 2000). Like doubting Thomas in the bible, he
needed proof to believe. Although commissions of inquiry
were appointed, the authorities preferred to highlight the
military’s success, especially through public homage paid
to it. General Gerardo Bricen˜o Garc?´a decorated a group
of gendarmes of the national guard for their courage in
saving victims and at the same time urged citizens to report
violent acts of which they might have been victims
‘‘so that we can preserve the image of our institution’’ (La
Rotta Mora´n 2000). Along with testimonies of plundering
and violence by security forces, the press published
documents attesting to the solidarity—often described in
religious terms—that had prevailed in the management of
the disaster.
Alfredo Infante, a Jesuit member of the service for
refugees set up by his church congregation, spoke about
the general mobilization in the Jesu´s Obrero parish: ‘‘The
members of the Army, under the coordination of Sergeant
Pacheco, a member of our Christian community, fulfilled
Humanitarian exception as the rule n American Ethnologist
their duty, providing valorous assistance and showing their
human qualities’’ (Infante 2000). He recalled the words of
this praiseworthy soldier: ‘‘After the Christmas mass and
meal, Sergeant Pacheco summed up his experience as follows:
‘What great things we can do when we work hand in
hand with those who are in need! It gives me a feeling of
peace’, he said’’ (Infante 2000). Collective redemption required
this dual movement consisting in openly producing
signs of the grace that had touched the entire nation
in this painful ordeal and, on the fringes, in constructing
the misdeeds accomplished under cover of the emergency
as an inevitable and reprehensible reality. The exception
was necessary and the crimes committed were simply an
exception within the exception. In this de facto state of
emergency around which consensus had been reached,
the country, with its civilians and its military, its victims
and its rescuers, its poor and its rich, thus, found the
‘‘national unity’’ that the president had called for in the
wake of the disaster.
Exception, in the political sense, is always apprehended
through the categories of law, of which it marks less the
negation than the boundary because it is often included
and even prescribed in constitutional texts. In this regard,
the Venezuelan case is interesting because the 1961 constitution,
still in force at the time of the 1999 disaster,
contains five articles (240 to 244) that, under the heading
‘‘De la emergencia,’’ refer only—and relatively briefly—to
the state of emergency. By contrast, Chapter II, ‘‘De los
estados de excepcio´n,’’ of the 1999 constitution, voted
on the day of the disaster, lists a series of exceptional
situations—‘‘state of alert,’’ ‘‘state of economic emergency,’’
‘‘state of internal and external disturbance’’—
along with details of the circumstances and consequences
of each case. The issue of exception is, thus, dealt with far
more explicitly in the new version of the constitution than
in the old one. Moreover, during events in Vargas, even
though the official reference could only have been the 1961
text, the government’s intellectual reference was clearly
the 1999 constitution. This is attested by the choice of the
term state of alert, absent from the first document but
found among the states of exception in the second.
We have tried to consider exception here from a
particular perspective, not only as a legal act, in this case
by the Constituent National Assembly, or as a de facto
situation instituted by the army, but also as a political act
that involves and runs throughout society as a whole. The
exception is not only the proclaimed state of exception
(and we have noted that it was not explicitly proclaimed in
the Venezuelan case). It is also the exceptional situation
(seen collectively as such). From this angle, la Tragedia
becomes fully meaningful. Faced with the most overwhelming
and inevitable misfortune—as in this case it was
claimed to be, with the accent on nature’s fury against
humans—the population united and the nation was redeemed.
Nothing bears witness to this more clearly than
the leitmotif in press articles and in the interviews that
we held, in which reference was constantly made to there
having been no differentiation in misfortune and assistance:
The absence of distinction concerning social or
racial origin in the victims’ suffering and in the rescuers’
help was repeated over and over again. The inhabitants of
better-off residential areas said that they shared the misery
of the poorest of poor; doctors from private clinics treated
patients from working-class neighborhoods that they had
never before had the opportunity of meeting; luxury restaurants
were turned into canteens for those who had
nothing else. Egalitarian illusion to make up for the weight
of inequality of Venezuelan society, and benefits of generosity
to offset the widespread corruption? Of course, this
cynical perspective has some basis. But there is more to it.
La Tragedia also allowed communion in the same humanitarian
fervor. The exception was perhaps less in the decree
instituting it than in the sentiment justifying it. Analyzing
one without understanding the other would mean overlooking
the purely theological dimension of politics.
‘‘God exists,’’ writes academic and journalist Yelitza
Linares (2000) in her account of her conversion to Christianity
at the moment when, having taken refuge on the
roof of her house destroyed by a flood of mud and rubble,
she was persuaded that she was going to die. She joined
her neighbors in praying aloud, crying and begging for
divine aid, until, eventually, the water subsided and rescue
became possible. The significance of what she perceives as
a miracle is not solely an individual truth. It is comprehensible
only in the broader national context, in which
la Tragedia was presented, by clergy and government
alike, as a trial through which the nation had to be reinforced.
To be sure, the moment of grace was short. Remarkably,
this almost fleeting moment of renewed unity
was also the starting point for future divisions that split
the country profoundly and brought it to the brink of civil
war several times, leaving a pervasive threat of a new
state of emergency in the air, this time for strictly internal
security reasons.
In an essay on ‘‘the part of the irreducible,’’ Claude
Lefort (1986:260–265) questions what he calls ‘‘the permanence
of the theological-political’’ in modern democracies.
Noting ‘‘the historically achieved disentanglement of the
religious and the political’’ and ‘‘the representation of
power that attests to its emptiness,’’ he wonders whether
scholars should not consider ‘‘that henceforth the theological
and the political are separate’’ and ‘‘that a new experience
of the institution of the social has emerged’’
(Lefort 1986:265). In light of this problematic and on the
basis of the empirical material presented, consider for just
American Ethnologist n Volume 32 Number 3 August 2005
a moment what la Tragedia and its management in a state
of exception actually was. In the process of regenerating
the state, expressed in terms of a rhetoric that was essentially
more revolutionary than mystical and drawing on
religious and political symbols alike, the disaster was experienced
as a trial making it possible to reconstruct national
unity, and the exception appeared as the concrete
modality of collective redemption acquired at the price of
symbolic and even physical violence. When the state of
grace disappeared, the social reality reappeared for what
it was: hierarchical, divided, and conflict ridden. But the
power continued to be embodied in the president, as evidenced
by the way Venezuelans find themselves today
unable to adopt any position other than for or against
Cha´vez. Whereas the ‘‘One’’ of the body of society materialized
only fleetingly in the moment of the humanitarian
exception, the ‘‘One’’ of the body of power is perpetuated
in the figure of the chief.
Acknowledgments. This research has benefited from an Ecos
Nord and Fonacit program of cooperation with the Universidad
Central de Venezuela in Caracas, under the direction of Didier
Fassin in France. It has also been supported by the Doctoral
School of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and
by Inserm, the French Institute for Health and Medical Research.
Paula Vasquez received a Talent Ve´ne´zue´lien grant from UNESCO
and the Venezuelan embassy in Paris. We thank all those who have
generously given of their time and memories to help us reconstruct
la Tragedia, in particular, the Grupo de Rescate Humboldt.
The initial text was translated by Liz Libbrecht. It was revised by
Didier Fassin and Linda Forman for the final version. The authors
are grateful to the anonymous reviewers and to the journal editor
for their helpful comments.
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accepted February 14, 2005
final version submitted March 1, 2005
Didier Fassin
Paula Vasquez
Centre de Recherche sur la Sante´, le Social et le Politique
Institut National de la Sante´ et de la Recherche Me´dicale
Universite´ Paris–Nord
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
74, rue Marcel Cachin
93 017 Bobigny Cedex
Humanitarian exception as the rule n American Ethnologist

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