Humanitarian exception as the rule: The political theology of the 1999 Tragedia in Venezuela

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 theological- political 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]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.