“LIFE & DEBT” (2001): How IMF, WB, and US destroy a country

life & debt 1
Poster of the film

Life and debt is a great documentary which shows the devastating effects of capitalist globalization in Jamaican human and natural life. Like many other countries, a bad economic situation led to ask for a loan to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), which, as experience has proved once and again, is to jump from the frying pan into the fire, or to appeal for a cure worse than the disease. It is to pass from economic scarcity to servitude and slavery. International economic institutions (IMF, WB, the latter’s branch cynically called Inter-American Development Bank), big corporations, and US government join to fall like a flock of vultures on Jamaica’s wound, and these birds of prey leave a collective corpse made of many bodies: the inhabitants of this little Caribbean island.

Life & Debt reflects the extreme hardships Jamaicans face in their attempt to survive in the most precarious conditions. Their individual and collective lives don’t depend on decisions they may make: their activities are subject to economic orders sent from luxury, faraway offices, by people who probably have never been in Jamaica, for whom the island belongs to a virtual reality that only exists in order to make them more and more rich. As if it were a video game.

Life & Debt reflects the extreme hardships Jamaicans face in their attempt to survive in the most precarious conditions.

The film contents are so hard and indignant that, if its eighty minutes were to be bearable, the film maker had to find some narrative strategy, some way to show the disgraceful. She found it. On the one hand, she uses typical resources of traditional documentary, with many interviews (talking heads); on the other hand, she combines them with two very original mechanisms: she follows the stay in the island of an American tourist group who enjoys a closed circuit of luxury hotels and chosen idyllic landscapes, a luxury opposed to the hard life of local people; and, there are re-enacted fragments between three Jamaican men sat down net to a camp fire, who talk about the situation in their country and the facts that led to it. The three narrative treads -traditional interviews, the package tour, and the three Jamaicans’ conversations- are intertwined to show an overall view of the state of things in the island. The documentary is completed by a narration -read by the writer Jamaica Kincaid, drawing from her book A Small Place-, mostly ironic (especially when commenting on the tourists’ adventures), and plenty of reggae music, which gives “local color”, though it is important to listen to the lyrics, of political and social contents: it is the Jamaican protest song (if Woody Guthrie or the pre-80s Bob Dylan had been Jamaican, they would have sang reggae).

From participants’ testimony -especially from Michael Manley, former Jamaican prime minister who asker for “help”- we can conclude that international loans, “structural adjustment” policies and free trade principles are a global trick aimed to transform countries into servants and put into practice all sort of legal extortions with impunity. Nowadays, Jamaica owes a fortune to these institution, and the quantity keeps growing due to the high interests linked to the loan. Those aware of the way this sort of loan works won’t be surprised to know that, in spite of the increasing stack of the loan, the supposed and promised economic progresses haven’t taken place anywhere: the “development” hasn’t disembarked in the island. As always, the real money doesn’t arrive to society and stay in the hands of a happy few, while poor people have to take on the debt repayment not only through giving money to the international institutions, but through accepting the economic “adjustments” imposed from abroad which will sink both their country and their individual lives.

International loans, “structural adjustment” policies and free trade principles are a global trick aimed to transform countries into servants and put into practice all sort of legal extortions with impunity.

The narrator tells us that, as time goes on without anyone repaying the loan nor the huge interests, the requests are stricter in each negotiation, which is a new turn of the screw. National currency is devalued, and so foreign currency rises, the interests taxes increase, wages are reduced with the argument (many times refuted by experience) that this measure will stimulate occupation and production, social spending is cut back (less education and health service), public assets are diverted to private sector… Because of the measures imposed by international organisms and the US Government, Jamaican industry and agriculture have been destroyed, the country has lost its sovereignty and self-government,  has to obey orders given from abroad even when it is evident that they are damaging. Jamaica has become a market to absorb US products and a region of labour costs so cheap that work there must be called servitude and slavery.

Stephanie Black offers a convincing analysis of neoliberal globalization effects in countries we must cease to call poor and begin to call impoverished.

Life and debt shows the effects this sacking has on real people, that which the institutions don’t take into account. Dramatic increase of unemployment, wide-spread corruption in Government senior officials, increasing illiteracy, dismantlement of public health, food too expensive for the vast majority of the population, which is on the brink of famine, gaps between the rich and the poor, violence. Two of the few thriving sectors are those of the coffin-making and private security.

Traditional activity has sink and almost disappeared. Big American banana companies –Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte–,that in other countries pay salaries so low that can be a dollar for 14 hours of exhausting work, block the export to the continent of Jamaican bananas, which are sold for nothing in England. Vegetable production has been sabotaged from above, and subsidy policies in favour of US products prevent local farmers from competing with their low prices.

The impoverishment of Jamaican society has reached the point of appearing “free ones”, closed and protected with electric wires, where the poorest people in the island, especially women, work in factories under miserable conditions and derisory wages. They  make clothes from material arrived in ships and sent sewn abroad without leaving any tax in the country. These people earn 30 dollars a week in return for their exhausting work, and from these 30 many are deducted because of retirement and education services which, of course, aren’t seen anywhere. One worker explains that they often go back home penniless after having been closed in the sunless factories all day long. Unions are banned, extortions and armed threats are usual. Sometimes arrive to Jamaica ships full of Chinese workers to replace locals who refuse to go on being exploited. Poverty in Kingston, the capital, is striking.

life & debt 2
Inside of a factory in a Jamaican “free zone”. Free of any responsibility from international corporations to the people and the country.

Meanwhile, US tourists enjoy their luxury, brainless vacations. Accommodated in a luxury hotel -which throws their excrements to the ocean, in a symbolic image of the attitude of the rich of this world-, they sunbath, drink daiquiris, visit with jeep and guide the neighbourhoods of the Jamaicans (so peaceable, so contents with their poverty, so smiling). Jamaica Kincaid voice, ever soft and ironic, sickly-sweet in its imitation of a real tourist guide introducing the country to happy visitors, explains the human and environmental disaster financial institutions have brought to the island. She informs tourists about things they won’t be able to see in their closed package tour (“When you sit down to eat your delicious meal, you won’t know that the food is shipped from Miami…”). Narrator’s irony and tone of voice create a distance that permits to go on watching the film, in spite of the injustices and cruelties shown in it.

One of the many good choices in this documentary is countering the statements of a IMF senior official -who expresses himself with an abstract, technical, aseptic language, and presents very favourably the economic measures implemented by his institution and other agents of neoliberal globalization- with the reality of Jamaicans’ life, sunk in poverty and  extreme scarcity. One should remember this contrast between abstract falsehood and concrete reality each time one hears satisfied statements by some agent of systematic plundering.

life & debt 3
An IMF senior official explains the “structural measures” his institution implements in Jamaica.

Stephanie Black made a superb denunciation film, a convincing analysis of neoliberal globalization effects in countries we must cease to call poor and begin to call, correctly, impoverished.


Director: Stephanie Black
Script and narration: Jamaica Kincaid
Country: United States
Original language: English
Running length: 80 minutes
Web: http://www.lifeanddebt.org/
Trailer https://vimeo.com/57451643

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