Ethnography of the status question and everyday politics in Puerto Rico
Ellis, Christopher David
This thesis is about the power of political elites to establish the framework of political discourse, and to thereby control political power, in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican 'status question' - the debate about the island's ultimate juridical and political relationship with the United States and the rest of the world – is considered a manifestation of such power. Formal domestic politics in Puerto Rico is structured around three party political desires for an uncertain and unknowable postcolonial future, and not around any set of distinctive ideological positions for engaging with political issues in the present. An unresolved question of nationalism and state building therefore becomes the structural filter through which all politics must necessarily pass. Inspired by the concept of hegemony, the thesis is firstly interested in how political elites exercise power to establish status as the framework for domestic political discourse. Secondly, and more importantly, it is interested in how this framework is reinforced, modified, resisted and even overcome through elite exercises of power in concrete political settings. The thesis takes a particular focus on the relationship between status positions and everyday political practices in three Puerto Rican municipalities: Guaynabo, Caguas and Lares. The author arrived at this focus through an ethnographic engagement with the field that was made possible by his research positionality as a white British outsider to Puerto Rico. The thesis tells the story of the nuanced ways in which local political elites engage with the status question through practices of politics on the ground. Elite performances of local state power do not straightforwardly reproduce the hegemony of status, but rather, create a more complicated empirical terrain of contradictory, unexpected and subversive effects. In certain places, everyday practices of municipal politics appear to reflect the intractable entanglement of local priorities and centrally prescribed status positions. In others, politics gets done in ways that leave the status question behind, creating effects that include city-state sovereignty, elevated standards of living, non-nationalist forms of politics, and non-state-centric possibilities for decolonisation. Ironically, therefore, a political system that is so profoundly shaped by discourses of nationalism and state building is disrupted in practice by some of the very actors who help to give the system this shape. These findings contribute to critical geographies of the Caribbean and to recent debates on politics, power and decolonisation in Puerto Rico.