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.
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
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.
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
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
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
and Debt official site
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