Quarantine (II): Venezuela as a Biopolitical Experiment

Reinaldo Iturriza López
https://elotrosaberypoder.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/michel-foucault.jpg?w=1024Michel Foucault

Contagious disease, quarantine (1): the use of this biological language to refer to the situation in Venezuela is not accidental. These are not simple metaphors.

Venezuela is currently a stage for biopolitical experimentation. As elaborated by Michel Foucault, the concept of biopolitics refers to the process of mutation of the “general economy of power” that occurred in Western European societies in the 18th century, which since then have been governed fundamentally through technologies or mechanisms of “security”.

Foucault dedicated a good part of his intellectual work to unravelling the functioning of these security mechanisms, which would be the origin of what we know today as neoliberalism. The theoretical and political implications of his analyses, which stand out for their audacity and rigour, are more than evident: they offer us invaluable tools for understanding the present, and their study should in no way be confined to academic circles with little or no militant vocation.

In order to describe in very general terms this process of mutation of the general economy of power, Foucault appealed to the historical examples of leprosy, plague and smallpox, among others more linked to the economy, the city, etc. I take as my starting point what was presented in his course at the College de France from 1977-1978, published for the first time in 2004 (in 2006 in Spanish) in a book entitled Seguridad, territorio y población or Security, Territory and Population.

Leprosy, plague, smallpox

For Foucault, in the case of lepers in the European Middle Ages, the fundamental thing is exclusion: “It is an exclusion that was made essentially, although there were other aspects as well, by means of a set… of laws and regulations, a religious set, also of rituals, that introduced in all cases a partition of a binary nature between those who were lepers and those who were not” (2).

Then there was the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries. In that case, it was no longer a question of eliminating the plague, but of subjecting it to quarantine: “The purpose of these plague regulations was literally to grid the regions, the cities within which there are plagues, with rules that told people when to go out, how, at what times, what they should do in their homes, what kind of food they should eat, forbidding this or that kind of contact, forcing them to report to inspectors, to allow them to enter their homes” (3). This established a system that Foucault identified as disciplinary.

Finally, there was smallpox in the 18th century. Inoculation practices began to be employed. “The problem is posed very differently: The fundamental problem would be to know how many people are victims of smallpox, at what age, with what effects, what mortality, what injuries or consequences, what risks are run when inoculating, what is the probability that an individual will die or be infected despite inoculation, what are the statistical effects on the population in general; in short, an entire problem that is no longer that of exclusion, as in the case of leprosy, which is no longer that of quarantine, as in plague, but rather the problem of epidemics and medical campaigns through which we attempt to eradicate phenomena, whether epidemic or endemic” (4).

The predominance of these security mechanisms, Foucault explains, does not imply the disappearance of legal or disciplinary mechanisms. Rather, this security technology “makes legal and disciplinary elements its own and puts them into operation within its own tactical framework” (5).

These three types of power technologies establish a different relationship with space. In a very schematic way, “sovereignty is exercised within the limits of a territory, discipline is exercised over the bodies of individuals and finally, security is exercised over the whole population” (6).

The emergence not only of the notion, but also of the reality of the population is key in Foucault’s analysis: it is “both object and subject of these security mechanisms” (7). The population is understood as “a multiplicity of individuals who are and only exist in a profound, essential way, biologically linked to the materiality within which they exist” (8).

Foucault further identifies three other substantial differences between the legal or sovereignty, disciplinary and security mechanisms, namely:

1) “Discipline is essentially centripetal. By this I mean that it works by isolating a space, determining a segment. Discipline concentrates, centres, encloses. Its first gesture, in fact, lies in circumscribing a space within which its power and its mechanisms will act fully and without limits”. On the contrary, “safety devices… have a constant tendency to expand: they are centrifugal. New elements are constantly being integrated… It is therefore a question of organising or, in any case, of allowing the development of ever larger circuits”;

2) “Discipline regulates everything. It doesn’t let anything escape. Not only does it not permit action, its principle states that not even the smallest things should be left to themselves… The security device, on the contrary… allows action. It does not allow everything to be done, of course, but there is a level at which permissiveness is indispensable… The essential function of discipline is to prevent everything, and in particular detail. The function of security consists in relying on details, not valued in themselves as good or bad and taken instead as necessary and unavoidable processes”;

3) Both discipline and systems of legality “distribute all things according to a code which is one of what is permitted and forbidden… In the security apparatus… it is a matter of not adopting either the point of view of what is prevented or the point of view of what is obligatory, and instead adopting a sufficient distance to be able to grasp the point where things are going to take place, In other words, the law prohibits, discipline prescribes, and safety, neither prohibiting nor prescribing, although there may be some instruments linked to interdiction and prescription, has the essential function of responding to a reality in such a way that the response nullifies it: annuls it, limits it, restrains it or regulates it. This regulation in the element of reality is, I believe, the fundamental thing in the safety mechanisms” (9).

The case of Venezuela

Working hypothesis: even though Chavism has been conceived and customarily treated as a plague, or even as leprosy, the tactics associated with each of these concepts are sometimes literally subsumed by the logic of a security mechanism.

This has become more and more evident to the extent that, as a consequence of the political and economic siege that weighs on the Venezuelan population, laboriously working on the weak points of the Bolivarian revolution, namely, the errors of its political leadership, the vulnerability of its economy, the unresolved social conflicts, etc., the process of de facto neoliberalization of society is accentuated.

Unilateral coercive measures, the so-called “sanctions” imposed by the Obama and Trump administrations, are strategically oriented to make any form of society different from the neoliberal one unviable.

The official spokesperson of the Venezuelan government has insisted, correctly, on denouncing the fallacy that these are coercive measures directed against individuals or “persons”, as this term is defined in executive order 13692 of March 8, 2015, signed by Barack Obama (10), and made a sustained effort to demonstrate the serious effects they produce on the entire population.

However, it should be pointed out that such unilateral coercive measures target not only the Venezuelan population, but also the global population, and above all the population of Latin American and Caribbean countries. This is particularly evident in the case of the massive migration of Venezuelans, mainly economic migrants, which has increased since 2016.

Although it would be incorrect to state that the massive exodus of Venezuelans, mainly to South American countries, is due exclusively to unilateral coercive measures imposed by the United States, it is impossible to deny the profound social impact of measures aimed not only at hindering the functioning of the national economy, with emphasis on its oil industry, but also at deliberately hindering access to food and medicine (11).

These are, in effect, punitive measures that inflict a “punishment” on the Venezuelan population, and eventually on its government. But their political effectiveness is more related to the fact that they allow the vaccination of the global population, and above all the ones in the “backyard” of the United States, against the Chavista disease.

In this sense, the exodus of Venezuelans acts as a political inoculation of the Latin American and Caribbean population, certainly infecting it, provoking in it something that is the Chavista disease itself, but in conditions that would have to produce the cancellation of that disease.

It is due to this logic of security mechanisms that Julio Borges referred to Venezuela as an infectious “focus”, as “the focus of everything that is meant by social degradation”, as “contagious disease”, and to Venezuelan migration as a human contingent that spreads disease or “social degradation” (12).

The dominant interpretation on the massive Venezuelan migration corresponds to the logics of this security device, although the elites of the receiving countries, and therefore victims of this disease with which they have been infected, encourage measures that correspond to the logics of the legal or disciplinary systems. But if, for example, these elites stir up xenophobia or tighten immigration controls, such tactics are almost always functional, on the one hand, to the control of their own populations, and especially to the strategic orientation of the security system: the predominance of neoliberalism.

If it were true that the systematic stigmatization campaign of the Bolivarian revolution in Latin American and Caribbean countries, which became more intense in electoral circumstances, was the object of suspicion for popular classes more inclined to identify with the Venezuelan democratic experiment, the Venezuelan migrant would be the verification that such experiment failed, and is therefore far from representing an alternative. In fact, Venezuela would have become the example of everything to avoid.

The Chavista plague is more precisely the Chavista smallpox. Punitive measures against the Venezuelan population, including the total blockade or “quarantine” recommended by Borges in April 2017 and looming as a possibility by Trump in April 2019, contribute to spreading the disease throughout the continent. Rather than containing it, as was done with the plague, it is allowed to pass, with the purpose of nullifying it.

According to this logic of the security mechanism, if thousands die and a few million suffer, this is neither good nor bad, but inevitable. As William Brownfield, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, said in October 2018, referring to the “sanctions” against the national oil industry: “At this moment perhaps the best resolution would be to accelerate the collapse, even if it produces a period of greater suffering for a period of months or perhaps years. All this is because the Chavista disease is being reduced to its minimum expression.


(1) Reinaldo Iturriza López. Forty: Contagious disease (1). October 3, 2019.

(2) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. Economic Culture Fund. Buenos Aires, Argentina. 2006. Page 25.

(3) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. Page 25.

(4) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. P. 26.

(5) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. P. 24.

(6) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. P. 27.

(7) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. P. 27.

(8) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. Pages 42-43.

(9) Michel Foucault. Security, territory, population. Pages 66-69.

(10) Executive Order 13692 of March 8, 2015. Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela .

(11) Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information. Chronology of economic measures of financial and commercial blockade (2014 – 2019) . MinCI editions. Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. August 2019. You may also consult this other document: Sanctions and blocking. Crime against humanity against Venezuela .

(12) Reinaldo Iturriza López. Quarantine: Contagious disease (I) . October 3, 2019.

Translation by Internationalist 360°