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.
By Linton Kwesi Johnson
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.
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
- 2004 Festival International du Film Insulaire, Ole de Groix, Special Jury Prize
- 2004 Paris Human Rights Film Festival, Special Jury Prize
- LA Weekly’s Ernest Hardy and Paul Malcolm pick Life and Debt in his Best Films 2002 list
- Cineambiente Int. Environmental Film Festival 2002 Teen Jury Best Film of Festival, Turin, Italy
- LIFE and DEBT was awarded Best Documentary at the Jamerican Film Festival
- LIFE AND DEBT receives the CriticsJury Award,Honorable Mention, Best Film of the Festival at the Independence Feature Project /West Los Angeles Film Festival
The critics jury was comprised of Jami Bernard from the New York Daily News, Emanuel Levy of Screen Intl. and Stephanie Zacharaek of salon.com. Over the nine-day event, 51 features and 48 shorts were screened for audiences that totalled more than 30,000