The Screening Room
I don’t read newspapers, watch the news or read books about various forms of oppression. I choose instead to grapple with the issues I confront daily on the street or in my travels, which are enough to occupy my mind, attention and compassion for extremely long stretches of time. I suppose as a traveler, a black person, and a lover of the Caribbean, my curiosity was piqued when I heard about Life and Debt, a documentary about how the social policies of the IMF, the World Bank and other international lending agencies have decimated the Jamaican farming economy and consequently destroyed the self-sufficiency of the entire country. Maybe, as 30 approaches, I’m growing into a woman who can look at the ugliness of the world and not be destroyed by what she sees.
A large part of the text of the film is excerpted from Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place—a slim volume about Antigua, the island country where Jamaica Kincaid was born. It is a testament to the power of Kincaid’s writing and to the universality of financial imperialism that many of the most scathing observations of A Small Place can be transferred from Antigua to Jamaica without changing a word.
The film starts with a typical tourist arrival to Jamaica. It is so well documented that any tourist who has been there will recognize every step of the journey, from the deplaning, to the folk singers greeting you at the airport, to the money changers just on the other side of immigration and customs. Just a few months ago two friends and I took one of these trips to Jamaica. One of us was Jamaican, all three of us black. It was an uncomfortable feeling, sitting in the hotel shuttle with all the white tourists, the younger ones talking about drinking and partying, the older ones talking about their love for the country. I remember the drive through town, how we looked out at the crowded streets, how the Jamaicans on the street looked in on us. I felt misplaced and embarrassed. Though I have been to Jamaica and many Caribbean countries, I usually move incognito, appearing to be one of the natives, not set apart in a bus, advertising my foreign citizenship and financial status.
Early on, Life and Debt sets up a bunch of well conceived paradoxes between tourists entering Jamaica with just their driver’s license and Jamaicans standing on a looooooong line to obtain visas; between the suitcases the tourist carry which go unsearched by Jamaican customs officials and the cardboard boxes of goods returning-Jamaicans carry home, which are cut open and every item examined by their country’s customs officials; between the loose sexual dance Jamaican hotel staff teach tourists and the somber spiritual drumming of a nyabingi circle.
The tourist element was not essential to the message of the film, but it was hugely impactful. “This is you,” those opening scenes said, “this is how you figure into this whole IMF, international racism, economic imperialism game.” As I think about the scene where the customs officials are opening a Jamaican woman’s boxes and rifling through her things, I remember my first experience with customs. I spent my junior year in the Dominican Republic. It was my first international trip, I was traveling alone and did not yet speak Spanish. I watched in horror as a Dominican customs official opened this Dominican woman’s box of tampons and unwrapped one. As he played with it, I clenched up, suddenly terrified to pass through. But as it turns out, my American passport granted me immunity from such an invasive search. My foreign dollars, my tourist status earned me a bit of respect. As my father says, it is important to know how American privilege is achieved. The privilege we Americans (yes, even us black Americans) enjoy daily costs something. Life and Debt is about those costs.
When Jamaica sought and obtained an IMF loan in the early 70s during a fuel crisis, former-prime minister Michael Manley explains in the film, the IMF set about making regulations that limited how much of those funds could be spent on education and health, set the rate of interest the government was to charge farmers for farming loans, and, most importantly, demanded the erasure of all artificial trade laws. Jamaica’s artificial trade law was that Jamaican farmers had the sole right to sell produce in the Jamaican markets. To the U.S., globalism means the right to sell its goods anywhere in the world. And any market closed to them is an untapped resource. Needless to say, a country on the scale of the U.S., with mechanized farming techniques can outprice a Jamaican farmer any day. So the entrance of U.S. produce on the Jamaican market means Jamaican farmers suddenly have no leverage to sell their produce at a profit. They certainly can’t break into the U.S. market.
The ramifications of globalization just rippled out from there in an unrelenting and breathtaking manner. Powdered milk—the sale of which is apparently subsidized 120% in the U.S.—entered the Jamaican market at ridiculously cheap prices. Suddenly dairy farmers who had been supporting a healthy dairy market for over 20 years were unable to sell the milk they produced. Dairy cows have to be milked twice a day. What that means is, if no one comes to buy the milk, gallons and gallons of fresh milk are thrown out DAILY while the majority of the Jamaican population are drinking powdered milk. When the dairy farms are completely out of business, there will be no local competition for the imported foreign milk. The powdered milk producers will then be free to set their prices as high as they want and the dairy farms will be unable to rebuild the industry quickly enough to compete.
It goes on, from Tropicana and Dole, who control 85% of the WORLD banana sales, successfully pressuring the IMF to pressure Britain to break its exclusive banana trade agreement with Jamaica; to McDonald’s putting a Jamaican Macdonalds—a restaurant of the same name which clearly sells Jamaican (not processed American) food—out of business because of “name infringement” and sells burgers to the country, but refuses to buy local meat and local food products. The list goes on with free zones [which I was introduced to as Zona Franca in Dominican Republic and my Panamanian friend recalls as Zona Libre in Panama] where U.S. and other foreign companies [Tommy Hilfiger, Brooks Brothers, Hanes, etc.] set up factories and pay Jamaican women $30 A WEEK to sew the clothes that we are all wearing. These Free Zones are called “free” because the local governments have NO control over the practices and policies there. The companies pay nothing to the Jamaican government, their only responsibility is to pay the Jamaican citizens who work in their shops—yet they sometimes pack up and disappear without paying the workers for two weeks of work, they sometimes ship in workers from another country and pay them instead of the Jamaican workforce, AND they often charge the workers for health care, education funds, and various and sundry taxes that they neither give to the Jamaican government nor grant to the workers. This is straight up hustling. The kind of bad behavior, as Jamaica Kincaid calls it, that was supposedly dismantled with slavery.
The film must be seen. We must have an understanding of what our consumerism and whims are built on. I was inspired when I saw this film to go out and tell everyone about it. Its triumph was to break down complex financial intrigue into a clear and concise series of events that demonstrates why people riot when the price of gas goes up. It is because there is NO space to maneuvre. The essence of life within a whole country is sucked out of them. The U.S. is not satisfied with ghettos in its own country, but is intent on creating entire countries who exist to support the desires of corporations, who exist to feed U.S. domination of the world marketplace.
Life and Debt was powerful, thorough, and hard hitting. One of the things I rejoiced to see/hear in the film was the voice of the people driving the narrative. Rather than some bored, intellectual voiceover explaining the plight of “the people,” the farmers broke down the situation complete with dates and side effects and far-reaching results. If you are a human being and you are currently breathing air, you need to check out Life and Debt.
Be well. Be love(d).