Life and Debt: Jamaica, the IMF and Michael Manley

life and debt

To thousands of tourists, it is the happy island of rum, reggae and sunshine. But a new film reveals how rich countries and the IMF keep the Caribbean poor.

Awards won by Life and Debt

By Linton Kwesi Johnson
Feb 2003
Source:  Jamaica uncovered The Guardian

“The issue is to make globalisation work for all. There will be no good future for the rich if there is no prospect for a better future for the poor.” That glib, cynical statement from International Monetary Fund director Horst Köhler is brilliantly exposed for the platitude it is in Stephanie Black’s engaging documentary Life and Debt. Black’s film is incisive in its examination of how IMF and World Bank policies, determined by the G7 countries, led by the US, impact on poor developing countries.

Life and Debt focuses on Jamaica as a typical example of a small developing country that has taken the IMF medicine. Having made modest strides in shaking off the legacy of slavery and colonialism, on the road towards self-reliance during the first decade of independence, Jamaica was suddenly plunged into deep financial crisis by the rise in the price of oil in 1973.

Michael Manley

The late Michael Manley, then the leftwing leader of the People’s National Party, who served two terms as prime minister in the 1970s, was rudely awoken to the realities of international finance. “In Washington they just looked at us and said, ‘No, no, no. Your inflation last year was 18% and we are not allowing you to lend to your farmers at 12%. You must charge 23%.'”

The IMF told Manley that he could get a short-term loan under their conditions but would not entertain any discussion about long-term solutions. At first the Manley government was defiant. Manley’s espousal of “democratic socialism”, his friendship with Fidel Castro and his activism in the Non-Aligned Movement did not endear him well to Washington. Jamaica’s financial crisis was further deepened by CIA destabilisation, which was exposed by dissident CIA agent Philip Agee. In the end the Manley government had to go back to the IMF cap in hand for a loan and Jamaica has been swallowing the IMF medicine ever since.

Jamaica’s continuing financial crises, high unemployment, lawlessness and social turmoil have to be seen against the background of IMF/World Bank policies that governments of both the left and the right have been forced to pursue for well over two decades. Life and Debt graphically illustrates how those policies have impacted on workers, small businesses, farmers and Jamaican society in general.

IMF and the ruin of local farmers 

We visit the local farmer whose enterprise is no longer viable because, like his neighbours, he cannot compete with the cheap imported onions and carrots from the US. Local farmers were able to make a decent living selling their produce to the local market before the IMF insisted on the removal of tariffs on imported goods. When the farmer tried to diversify to honeydew melons for export, he was told by his prospective American client that the produce did not meet their specifications. “We use machete to farm… can machete compete with machine?” asks the farmer.

The same story is told by the dairy farmer who has to pour his milk down the drain because he cannot compete with the cheap imported subsidised milk powder from the US. We hear from the chicken farmer whose business is no longer viable because his 50-cents-a-pound chicken cannot compete with the 20-cents-a-pound chicken parts from the US. At a Rasta camp we encounter three dreadlocked elders reasoning about the state of the Jamaican economy. One of the elders says that he never saw chicken backs in any supermarket when he visited the US, yet they are exported to Jamaica. His bredrin explains that, from the days of slavery, the master kept the best for himself and the scraps were left for the slaves. There are also testimonies from banana farmers whose industry has been devastated by the US-instigated WTO ruling that robs them of their secured tariff-free markets in Europe. The furniture maker who shifted to making coffins is doing good business, though.

Who really benefited from the IMF remedy?

In Life and Debt, we see Jamaica through the eyes of the tourist. We also see the Jamaica that the tourist rarely encounters: slum dwellers watch themselves on news footage of riots, political violence and industrial unrest. The Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s essay A Small Place is aptly adopted to provide a poetic narrative. Footage of the slums of Kingston is underscored by reggae and ragga music and dub poetry, lyrical meditations on the state of the nation. “I and I want to rule I destiny,” chants Buju Banton. Anecdotes from Manley about his “bitter, traumatic” experience with the IMF, World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are juxtaposed with IMF deputy director Stanley Fischer’s diagnosis of and prescription for the Jamaican patient. Women working in unregulated, tariff-free sweatshops called “free zones” talk about their struggle to make ends meet on their weekly salaries of US$30.

What Black’s film shows is the spectacular failure of the IMF “remedy”. After the structural adjustments, the cuts in public expenditure, the removal of tariffs on imports, the privatisations and devaluations, Jamaica is still plagued by financial crisis. Development plans have been abandoned as the vision of independence recedes. Life and Debt is a very powerful weapon in the arsenal of the global movement for a more equitable economic order.

© Linton Kwesi Johnson.

AWARDS WON BY Life and Debt

The critics jury was comprised of Jami Bernard from the New York Daily News, Emanuel Levy of Screen Intl. and Stephanie Zacharaek of  Over the nine-day event, 51 features and 48 shorts were screened for audiences that totalled more than 30,000

Source:   Life and Debt:  A Film by Stephanie Black
Jamaica uncovered The Guardian

5 thoughts on “Life and Debt: Jamaica, the IMF and Michael Manley

  1. I gave away several copies when it initially came out. This is a must see for all to understand
    what imperialism is all about. The young Jamaicans need to see it. It is they who will eventually decide which direction the Jamaica of the future will go. As it has been said ” He who forgets history tends to repeat it”. Take the heads out the sand.

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  4. From my standpoint, the persistent failures of the IMF\World Bank stabilization and structural adjustment programs in Jamaica and elsewhere in the developing world in the past is something of historical record. There is no doubt about the failed global record of these two Bretton Woods institutions. The clear record of failures of these institutions is manifestly illustrated by their stated objectives in Jamaica and other developing countries. They claim the following objectives: (1)To stabilize the currencies of Jamaica and other developing countries and make them more competitive and by implication to make the exports of these countries more competitive in international markets, (2)To correct the current account deficits on the balance of payments of these countries by adjusting the relative prices of their exports (i.e make them cheaper in foreign markets) and make the imports of Jamaica and other developing countries more expensive in their domestic markets) through systemic devaluations of their currencies, (3)Thus, the IMF\World Bank economists argue in keeping with their neo-liberal thinking that exporters in Jamaica and other developing countries would invest more capital in their exporting sectors and their importers would have less incentives to import foreign goods and services. The implication being that in net, export revenues would rise and import spending would fall, resulting in the improvement of the current account deficits and presumably more jobs and growth in GDP or the economies of these countries, (4)The IMF\World Bank stand squarely for fiscal discipline which basically means that the governments of these countries should reduce spending on things like education, health care, sports, housing, subsidies for foods consumed by the poorer classes, kerosene oil and other goods and services used mainly by the poorer classes and increase taxes on them to generate surpluses on the budget and reduce deficits. The theoretical rationale for the latter on the part of these institutions is that deficit spending increases domestic demand for local goods and services and foreign goods and services which create demand for too much imports which create deficits on the current account of the balance of payments in Jamaica and other developing countries that adopt IMF\World Bank programs.

    Additionally, the IMF\World Bank are hawks on reducing inflation, privatization of public entities including profitable enterprises and the deregulation of international trade (i.e open trade) in Jamaica and other developing countries.These institutions also claim to reduce poverty and hunger which are consequences of underdevelopment and not the cause of it. The causes of underdevelopment are actually colonialism, neocolonialism, local oligarchy and imperialism of which the IMF\World Bank are critical tools in keeping Jamaica and other developing countries subordinated to the power of the super-rich, the big financiers on Wall Street and elsewhere in the financial world and the big foreign corporations and their local allies.

    The latter are still facts despite the the new era and despite the” political transformations” of some of the former leftists and communists in the PNP and the WPJ. In fact some of them are now ardent supporters of the cited failed policies of the IMF\World Bank in Jamaica. Indeed, some of these same individuals were bitterly critical of then PM, Michael Manley for not “trusting the people enough” to “stand up” to the IMF\World Bank. Then, they advocated “an anti-imperialist alternative” or a “peoples’ alternative” to the IMF\World Bank programs. Yet today, these very same individuals who were so critical of the IMF\World Bank approach to the development of our country are now far to the right of Michael Manley and some of them can be generously called reactionaries. What a world? How does one explain such radical and overnight shift from “left” to “right”, from supporting the “poor” to supporting the “rich”? It’s unfortunate that PM Manley is not alive to witness the hypocrisy of his former critics today.However, I guess Bob Marley is right, “Time will Tell.”

    I will not waste the time of anyone who may read these comments about the results of Jamaica’s and any other developing countries’ experiences with the stabilization\structural adjustment programs with the IMF\World Bank. I will only ask the readers to ask the following questions:

    (1)How competitive is the Jamaican dollar after nearly 30 years under IMF\World Bank tutelage?

    (2)How competitive are Jamaica’s exports in international markets today after nearly 30 years under IMF\World Bank tutelage?

    (3)Is Jamaica’s national budget in a better shape today? and if it is ostensibly at what cost to the poor?

    (4)What is the report card for Jamaica for privatization and deregulation? Do the “benefits” of these policies exceed their “costs” to Jamaicans after nearly 30 years?

    (5)Are there more or less poor Jamaicans after nearly 30 years of IMF\World Bank programs?

    (6)Can you think of one developing country in Africa, the Caribbean or Latin America that has followed the IMF\World Bank policies that has achieved growth, development and prosperity for the vast majority of its people?

    Against the background of the foregoing, my problem then is not so much the past and dismal failures of the IMF\World Bank programs in Jamaica and elsewhere in the developing world but more importantly, what explains the apparent enthusiasm of the Deputy Prime Minister, Peter Phillips and others in the Jamaican government to pursue these very same failed policies. Do these people including the former “leftists and communists” who are now cheerleaders for the IMF\World Bank policies really believe that though these policies have failed our people and country in the past, it will now make us prosperous? What could possibly make them believe so now? Again Bob Marley is right,”Time will Tell.”

  5. Pingback: Life and Debt: Jamaica, the IMF and Michael Manley « Advent Brethren Fellowship

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