Retro Film Review: Life and Debt

If you need a reminder of the failures of globalization, look no further than Jamaica. Now, when most of you think of this exotic Caribbean island nation, miles of beaches, reggae music, marijuana and a all around good time comes to mind. What most of you don't know is Jamaica is highly in debt and sinking economically due primarily to attempted repayments of loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). With the announcement today by Bob Geldof about the Live 8, a concert to coincide with the G8 summit in July to highlight global poverty and the need for debt relief in the global South, Jamaica's economy will certainly be up for more discussion in the next few weeks.

"If you come to Jamaica as a tourist, this is what you will NOT see..."

In Stephanie Black's Life and Debt, the documentary gives an excellent, balanced history of Jamaica's woes by using the stories of individual Jamaicans, weaved in with poetry by Jamaica Kincaid.

When England left Jamaica as a colonial ruler in 1962, it also left the island without any economic infrastructure. The film begins with former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley in a post independence speech condemning the IMF, saying that "the Jamaican government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we're not for sale." Manley was elected primarily because of his anti IMF stance. However, Manley was forced to sign Jamaica's first loan agreement with the IMF in 1977. This was due in part to lack of viable economic alternatives, which is a common pattern throughout the Third World. When the IMF was created in 1945, it was designed to cater to post World War II nations, not newly independant, post colonial countries. In the last three decades Jamaica has accrued over $5 billion in debt, most of which is interest, which is owed to the IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and other lending organizations. The IMF assumes that the combination of increased interest rates and cutbacks in government spending will shift resources from domestic consumption to private investment. It is further assumed that keeping the price of labor down will be an incentive for increasing employment and production. As a result unemployment has increased, the gap between rich and poor has widen, corruption has gotten worse and gang violence has surged.

The film looks at four industries - bananas, chicken, milk and clothing - to give the audience a feel for how the current economy is really affecting Jamaicans. What was the most shocking was the fact that there are "Free Trade Zones" in Kingston where US companies come in, set up shop and barely pay workers. Previously, when the workers have spoken out and attempted to organize to improve their wages and working conditions, they have been fired and their names included on a blacklist ensuring that they never work again. Free Trade Zones are actually encouraged by the U.S. government because they are tax free and there are no international law that actually state that workers be treated fairly. Assignments financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) have used over $34,960,000 in U.S. tax dollars to target, persuade and provide incentives to American companies to relocate offshore in Jamaica. Coincidentally due to NAFTA, these dismal yet precious jobs are being lost to Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

Banana production was at one time Jamaica's number one export. Under the Lome Convention, formerly colonized countries were given preferential treatment of tax-free import quota for 105,000 tons/fruit per year to England. The US, nonetheless, felt this arrangement was wrong and sought to dismantle it, forcing Jamaica to compete with Central and South American countries with cheaper labor and better climate and soil. This has resulted in a tumultuous lost to exports.

I felt the most shocking part of the film dealt with the U.S. "dumping" of low-grade chicken parts in Jamaica . While there are many restrictions on foods and goods imported into the U.S., there are often no restrictions on food and goods exported to foreign developing countries. There is a scene is the movie when a chicken inspector explains how he found packaged chicken parts deemed to be 20 years old (?!?). When he presented the package to a US official, the man took the package into his custody and said that the meat was mistakenly sent to Jamaica instead of Haiti. Interestingly, in the next scene a rasta man explains that back during slavery the slave master gave the parts of the chicken he didn't want to his slaves.

With this said, is globalization the new slavery? When Queen Elizabeth II gave Jamaica its independence, it seems the crown was given to McDonald's and Chiquita instead of the native people.

Shame on G8!


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