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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The rising price of free trade

Life and Debt

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Jamaica Rakuen no Shinjitsu
Director: Stephanie Black
Running time: 86 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 16
[See Japan Times movie listings]

At the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the picture presented by the media has been one we have become accustomed to: the rational, reasonable men in suits, representing the world's developed economies and interests, on the one hand; and the scruffy, unruly protesters, the opponents of globalization, on the other. Ever since "the Battle of Seattle" in 1999, media emphasis has been on the occasional violence and vandalism during protests, painting a picture of dissenters as forces of chaos and anarchy.

News photo
A scene from the documentary "Life and Debt"

Not much is made, however, of the chaos and anarchy engendered by the forces of globalization. What goes on in countries subjected to the mandates of global capital -- organized by the likes of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- rarely makes the screens. The petty violence of a masked protester smashing a store-front window, which affects a few people, is widely reported; the massive economic violence engendered by IMF structural reforms, which affects millions, is not.

Stepping in to fill that gap is documentary director Stephanie Black, an American who has relocated to Jamaica. Her documentary "Life and Debt" takes a long, hard look at the poverty and economic hopelessness in Jamaica and seeks to pinpoint the reasons why. Her sights land on the IMF, in particular, and the system of perpetual debt that is wiping out agriculture and industry in the Third World, while making those countries "friendly" for sweat-shops and product-dumping.

The debt question is a bit obscure to many people, although Bob Geldof's recent Live 8 events have attempted to raise consciousness about the issue. Why are these countries so indebted, and why haven't they benefited from their loans? These are good questions, and Black addresses them clearly in this fine, perceptive documentary, which makes the issues readily understandable, without resorting to the grandstanding of a Michael Moore.

News photo
Bananas are just one of the Jamaican farming industries that have been damaged by free-trade agreements.

Black begins by addressing the common image of Jamaica, that of a tropical paradise, the sun-stroked home of reggae and rum so loved by tourists seeking escape from grayer, chillier climes. Using excerpts from the essay "A Small Place," by Jamaica Kincaid and read by the author in voiceover, Black addresses the gap between the limited, idyllic perceptions of the tourist and the reality of life on the island.

Typical is when a group of tourists dine in their hotel and the voiceover softly notes: "When you sit down to eat your delicious meal, it's better that you don't know that most of what you're eating came off a ship from Miami." A tourist enjoying a sweet Jamaican banana by the pool spins off into a digression on the banana market, how U.S.-owned companies Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte already control 95 percent of the global market and seek to squash Jamaica's small producers as well.

It's a good example of the issues involved in globalization. The United States, under the banner of free trade, is pressuring the European Union to drop the import quotas of produce that they have allowed former colonies, something which helps sustain Jamaica's banana production. Of course, forcing Jamaica's tiny industry to go up against the monopoly capitalism of U.S. multinationals is hardly what one can call a "level playing field." Particularly so when Chiquita can ensure lower wages in other countries like Columbia, where -- as we see in the film -- workers protesting their subsistence wages and working conditions were gunned down in scores.

The film moves through example after example: from bananas to beef, carrots, onions, potatoes, milk -- all these industries were devastated after government protection was lifted, thanks to free-trade agreements and pressure by the IMF. We see dairy farmers dumping rivers of milk, for there is no place to sell it. U.S. powdered milk -- which is, in reality, more expensive to produce, never mind transport to Jamaica, than local fresh milk -- is dumped on the market, backed by U.S. government subsidies. Once the local industry is devastated, notes one dairy farmer, the price will surely rise. (The day after viewing "Life and Debt," I noted with irony an article in this paper that reported that Washington had imposed punitive tariffs against Chinese textiles to protect its own producers; so much for the "invisible hand.")

The best aspect of the film are the many Jamaican voices that Black allows to explain their predicaments. From former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley -- a tragic figure who came to power on an anti-IMF platform, but was forced to deal with them in the end -- to farmers, university professors, workers in the free-zone Tommy Hilfiger sweatshops and wizened old Rastafarians, Black has assembled a chorus of voices all saying the same thing: The current system is not working.

"Life and Debt" draws an effective contrast by cross-cutting its interview with Manley and Stanley Fischer, IMF deputy director. Manley is frank, passionate and contrite, admitting that accepting IMF loans was the biggest mistake of his public life. Fischer is cold, reserved and blissfully abstract -- not once does the economic reality of present-day Jamaica disturb his theoretical logic.

The crux of the matter seems to be that the IMF's prescriptions of fiscal austerity, currency devaluation, privatization, lower wages and market liberalization -- mandatory requirements for receiving aid -- are designed with the aims of multinationals and global capital in mind. Real improvements to the society in question seem to be irrelevant; Jamaica is a story of collapsing education and health-care systems, disappearing local industries, and joblessness, and yet it is called a "success" by the IMF, for it is no longer receiving loans from them. (At present, however, Jamaica is still servicing a crippling $4.5 billion in debt to international lending institutions.)

The traces of cultural imperialism are everywhere to be seen: There's the Jamaican take-out chain McDonald's, in existence since 1971, getting accused of copyright infringement by Ronald McDonald's lawyers, when the U.S. chain decides to move into Jamaica. There are the U.S. tourists entering Jamaica with nothing more than a driver's license, while Jamaicans have to go through extensive interviews before getting a visa. And there's the ignominy of the free zones, cowboy-capitalist industrial parks that are governed by none of the laws of Jamaica, whether it's workplace safety or the freedom of assembly.

Black makes her points trenchantly and neatly, moving along quickly to the pulse of a killer soundtrack by Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Buju Banton and Mutabaruka. If there's one weakness here, it's the ending: Black ends with a few shots of an agricultural cooperative, where self-sustainability is the key. It's an uplifting moment, but not one that's going to roll back the tide. The excesses of international capital will require a movement that's similarly global to oppose it, and that isn't identified here. Still, naming the problem is half the effort, and Black's done that exceptionally well.

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