Jamaican realities

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jun 15 09:32:00 MDT 2001


NY Times, June 15, 2001

MOVIE REVIEW

'Life and Debt': One Love, One Heart, or a Sweatshop Economy?

By STEPHEN HOLDEN

The term "globalization" is so tinged with rosy one-world optimism that
it's easy to assume the essential benignity of an economic philosophy whose
name vaguely connotes unity, equality and freedom. But as Stephanie Black's
powerful documentary "Life and Debt" illustrates with an impressive (and
depressing) acuity, globalization can have a devastating impact on third
world countries. The movie offers the clearest analysis of globalization
and its negative effects that I've ever seen on a movie or television screen.

"Life and Debt," which opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this
evening at the Walter Reade Theater and continues its run on Saturday at
Cinema Village, focuses on the deeply troubled economy of Jamaica and how
that country's long-term indebtedness to international lending
organizations have contributed to the erosion of local agriculture and
industry.

Far from being a dry exegesis crammed with graphs, pie charts and talking
heads spewing abstract mumbo-jumbo, the film goes directly to the farmers
and factory workers whose livelihoods have been undermined. In basic
everyday language, they explain how high interest rates have helped devalue
the local currency, raising prices for their produce and permitting
wealthier countries to import the same products and sell them more cheaply.

The hard-nosed lending policies of organizations like the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank may
not deliberately set out to undermine fragile third world economies
dependent on their aid. But as the movie shows, the market forces that
operate once these organizations become involved are an economic form of
Darwinism. The fittest economies prosper while the weaker ones tend to be
snared in an endless and escalating cycle of debt repayment that eventually
erodes the debtor country's economic base. The banks' lending policies are,
of course, determined by the wealthier countries, especially the United
States and those of Western Europe.

These dry economic realities are leavened by the cool, ironic lyricism of a
voice-over narration by Jamaica Kincaid, who adapted the text from her
nonfiction book, "A Small Place." Adopting the alluringly soothing tone of
a subversive tour guide, Ms. Kincaid informs potential tourists of the
things that will be hidden from sight should they visit Jamaica.

"When you sit down to eat your delicious meal, it's better that you don't
know that most of what you are eating came off a ship from Miami," she says.

That's just one of a long list of things she mentions - from primitive
hotel sewage systems that empty directly into the ocean to the dire poverty
of Kingston's slums - that all but the most intrepidly curious visitors to
the country will not see. Recurring through the film are unsettling images
of jolly, overfed American tourists engaged in activities like
beer-drinking contests in Jamaica's luxury hotels.

One result of the country's crumbling economy is the vulnerability to
exploitation of Jamaica's needy labor force. A segment about Jamaica's free
trade zones introduces us to workers who toil five or six days a week in
near-sweatshop conditions for the legal minimum wage of $30 a week sewing
garments for American manufacturers. No unionization is permitted in these
foreign-owned garment factories where shiploads of material arrive tax-free
for assembly before being transported back to foreign markets. Those who
dare to make waves are fired.

The movie visits a plant that used to sell high-quality chickens for
Jamaican consumption but whose business has been undermined by the dumping
of cheaper, low-grade chicken parts from the United States under the guise
of free trade. And until recently, Jamaica's banana industry flourished
thanks to an agreement with Britain allowing a tax-free import quota. But
through the World Trade Organization, the United States has protested the
agreement, forcing Jamaica to compete with multinational corporations based
in Central and South America where labor is cheaper.

These are just a few of the stories told in a film that despite all the bad
news it delivers refuses to raise its voice. Among the prominent Jamaicans
interviewed the most eloquent voice belongs to Michael Manley, the former
prime minister who reluctantly signed some of the agreements that have
damaged the country's economy.

Speaking more in sorrow than in anger, he acknowledges that his country
made mistakes along the way. But the overall impression left by this
devastating film is of the global economy as a dog-eat-dog world where the
usual culprits, the United States and its multinational corporate clients,
have the advantage.

LIFE AND DEBT

Produced and directed by Stephanie Black; narration written by Jamaica
Kincaid, based on her book "A Small Place"; directors of photography, Malik
Sayeed, Kyle Kibbe, Richard Lannaman and Alex Nepomniaschy; edited by Jon
Mullen; music by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Bob Marley, Dean
Fraser, Buju Banton, Sizzla, Harry Belafonte, Mutabaruka, Rolando E.
McLean, Peter Tosh and Anthony B.; released by Tuff Gong Pictures. Opens
tomorrow at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running
time: 86 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Belinda Becker (narrator).


Louis Proyect
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