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Life and Debt
by Chris Dashiell

World Bank. IMF. NAFTA. Free trade. It's difficult even for some of those sympathetic to the anti-globalization movement to understand exactly what the problem is. Stephanie Black's film Life and Debt educates by focusing on one country (Jamaica), interviewing ordinary people as well as major players, and by arguing a frankly polemical viewpoint. The last aspect may seem to go against the grain of traditional ideas about documentary, but in political terms, "objective" reporting by the media has actually come to mean an effective silencing of opposition to establishment versions of truth. Life and Debt is effective because it has an opinion, and follows it up with evidence.

"If you come to Jamaica as a tourist, this is what you'll see..." The narration, adapted from a book by Jamaica Kincaid, starts with the official version of Jamaica as paradise and playground for American tourists, returning occasionally throughout the film to images of Americans swimming, sightseeing, dancing, and indulging in tanning or beer drinking contests at posh hotels. They don't know that the food they're eating comes from Miami, the refuse they flush is going into the ocean, and the little building they see by the side of the road that looks like an outhouse is actually a school.

Behind the facade is poverty. Black asks - Why? And to answer the question she interviews farmers, workers, small business owners, activists, Rastafarians and others, as well as Michael Manley, the former prime minister who signed many of the agreements with international lending organizations that led to present conditions - he provides historical background and cogent critique. And, in a real coup for Black, the deputy director of the International Monetary Fund, Stanley Fischer, who explains why he thinks globalization is good for Jamaica.

Michael Manley

The World Bank and the IMF were created by the Allies, most of them colonial powers, at the end of World War II, in order to avoid the destabilizing economic conditions that occurred after World War I. Their policies reflect their interests, not the interests of colonized peoples, who were not even independent at the time. With the end of the colonial era in the ensuing decades, the newly free nations found that they were lacking the necessary infrastructure (education, health, technology, banking, administrative, etc.) to build or maintain a viable society. Jamaica, like many other countries, turned to international lending organizations for help. However, the loans came with conditions. Jamaica had to eliminate tariffs and other limitations on imports. It could only spend certain percentages on education and social welfare - percentages determined by the IMF or World Bank. Local currency needed to be devalued relative to the dollar. And the Jamaican government could not loan to its own people (farmers, industry, etc.) except at a very high rate of interest dictated by the lenders. Stanley Fischer claims that these policies were designed to encourage the healthy development of Jamaica's economy. But what has been the actual result? Black shows us, not by numbers and graphs, but through the plain talk of actual Jamaican farmers and workers.

The devaluation of currency, and the elimination of limits on imports, meant that the price of local produce went up while imports from richer countries sold more cheaply. Thus Idaho potatoes drove out Jamaican potatoes, and big American companies were able to come in and buy out local ones. Powdered milk from the U.S. sold more cheaply than regular milk from Jamaican dairies. The local dairy industry, up until then one of the country's strongest, collapsed. (The film shows dairy farmers having to pour thousands of gallons of milk away while their businesses go belly-up.) The banana industry continued to thrive, because of an agreement with their former colonizer, the UK, allowing a guaranteed market. But the United States protested to the World Trade Organization about this "unfair" labor practice. Chiquita and Dole already controlled over 90% of the world market, but that was apparently not enough for them. Now the banana farms are going into decline, unable to compete with the big foreign companies.

The trouble is that the rich countries can always beat the poorer ones on the so-called "level playing field," because their greater resources allow cheaper means of production and access to cheaper labor. As one farmer puts it in the film, "How can the machete compete with the machine?"

Meanwhile, as the economic base eroded, the government was unable to keep up with repaying the debt. Close to 60% of the state's outlays go just to payment of interest on the debt. The amount has ballooned from millions to billions. As the state is less and less able to meet the social service needs of its people, the quality of life continues to decrease. Poverty, violence and disease skyrocket.

One compelling section of the film covers the creation of "free trade zones" in Jamaica. Corporations negotiated the use of land that would be free from taxes or any state regulation, to be used for factories manufacturing clothing and other goods that would go straight to the boat for export. Black takes us inside the factories, and what we see are sweatshops where people labor at top speed for ten hours a day, receiving an average of $60 a month. No unions are allowed. The film interviews some of the women who work in these factories - they're tired, angry, and eloquent. Later, we see a mini-riot, as workers tear down a fence trying to stop the company from bringing in Asian workers who are paid in American dollars instead of Jamaican like the locals. If there is any trouble like this, the company can relocate somewhere else, like Ecuador or Mexico, which is exactly what happened in this case.

Life and Debt is intended to upset you. It did me. But it doesn't take the simplistic position that the bankers and corporations who have imposed this economic order on the Third World are villains who secretly plot to oppress the downtrodden. As Michael Manley points out, the policies make sense in terms of the economic self-interest of the people who made them. Corporations need to maximize profits and expand their control, because their shareholders demand it. Why wouldn't they? And the executives of the international lending organizations are probably sincere in their belief that these policies serve to benefit poor countries in the long term, notwithstanding Stanley Fischer's annoying smirk.

The trouble is, they don't. They only work for the richer countries. Poor countries like Jamaica end up losing their self-determination. Their governments, their economic policies, are determined by the conditions set down by the IMF and World Bank. The only industries that now thrive in Jamaica are tourism, coffin-making, and the training of guard dogs.

What we are seeing here, what is so clearly depicted in Life and Debt, is de facto slavery. When people have no control over their lives, when their country is at the mercy of foreign interests and foreign capital, when their government is occupied in controlling them rather than serving them, and when people are unable to support themselves adequately with their own labor, suffering from hunger, exploitation in sweat shops, and destruction of their traditional way of life, there really is no more pleasant thing to call this than slavery. And that's what the anti-globalization movement is ultimately about. It's the modern version of abolitionism. The modern slave-master is an economic system which precludes freedom, self-determination, and economic health to the majority of the world's people. The possible solutions, which include debt forgiveness and giving a oice to the less powerful nations in the determination of policy, are complex. They are being ignored.

Life and Debt, by bringing these realities home to us (and by "us" I mean viewers in First World countries), showing the results of this system on real people who live right next door, helps provide a needed wake-up call.

©2002 Chris Dashiell
Photographs courtesy of Jeremy Francis
Life and Debt official site

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