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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Documentarian shoots from the hip inside Jamaica's debtor's prison

Stephanie Black was first noticed for her documentary "H2 Worker," which won both Best Documentary and Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. The film looked at the plight of Caribbean men who are brought to Florida each year on temporary worker visas (the "H2") to harvest sugar cane for American Sugar Corporations. Visiting Jamaica to shoot a segment for this doc, she "fell in love with the country" and moved there soon after.

News photo
Filmmaker Stephanie Black

After working as an editor for a while, she became involved in the music scene, making friends with the Marley clan and directing music videos for Ziggy Marley, Buju Banton, Snow and others.

She spoke with The Japan Times, in an accent somewhere between Queens and Kingston, on many of the issues her film addresses. Right off the bat, though, she noted her surprise at how ill-informed Japanese interviewers were regarding globalization. Surprising, she thought, given that Japan is second only to the United States in voting power at the International Monetary Fund.

How did this documentary come into being?

I didn't go to Jamaica to make a film about structural adjustment. I really didn't know anything about the IMF. I thought they were like the Red Cross. From living in Jamaica, I came to understand what it's like to be in a country under a structural adjustment policy. And then I became very angry, understanding what I'd never been taught before.

Do you think Jamaica's example is representative of a larger phenomenon?

Yeah, definitely. Specifically, in terms of the impact of the IMF and the World Bank, because their prescriptions are the same for every country that borrows from them. You know, the film was invited to festivals in Brazil and Argentina, and people were hysterical, in tears, crying, saying, "This is our country, this is what's happening here."

The tourists in the film don't come off looking so good.

Well, the tourists were not the enemy in the film. The tourists are stylized -- they don't speak; they're metaphors. They come to Jamaica, and they stay within the confines of the hotel. That was comparable to me, to all of us in the United States -- very often we don't have an understanding of what our policies are doing outside the country. Lack of information is a victimizing force, and that's something we're all affected by.

Tourism is really designed to keep you in a bubble, cut off from the culture.

Right. And there's also the element, in a country like Jamaica, where they have to re-invent themselves for the tourists. Like, the activities you see in the film -- there's nothing Jamaican about a beer-chugging contest. And there's a soulessness to it, too. Like before, maybe you could travel and go to a country, walk into a bar, and see people dance, and maybe try that on yourself. It would be a more organic exchange of culture and experience. But there, you have the person who comes to the hotel and says, "OK, let's learn the Jamaican dance move!" and it's all aerobic-style. And the soul of it, I feel, is taken out. And when the soul isn't there, there's a certain callousness that can develop, and a lack of human exchange.

These hotels, though, aren't all that different form the "gated communities" in the States. It's scary to see this pattern replicating itself all over the world.

Right. And what's interesting is travel agents actually tell people, "You must stay in the all-inclusive hotel." And then when the tourists go to the hotel, the hotel employees instruct the people not to go far from the hotel, that it's dangerous. So somehow this mentality is propelled.

So what about ex-Prime Minister Michael Manley? He came to power on an anti-IMF platform -- what caused him to make a deal with the devil?

In a general sense, he had no other choice. He had a country that had been colonized for 400 years. He wanted to develop the country in a way more oriented toward the people, because it's been developed so much to meet the needs of Britain. All the raw resources were exported, what was consumed was imported. He needed to start building an infrastructure, building roads, schools, etc. [and to] rebuild the sugar factories, because when the British left, they just let them run down. You need capital, and where can you go to get it? Commercial banks won't lend you money unless you have the seal of approval of the IMF.

Manley, actually, was pretty ingenious. He went to the oil-producing nations -- this was in the early '70s -- and they had a lot of cash, and he suggested maybe the Third World can help each other out. Lend us the money, and we'll pay you back at a good interest rate. But they said no and put their money in Barclay's in London. It's safer.

For a long time he contemplated putting the country on a real austere program, but at a certain point, he just couldn't do it. Like he says in the film, there was no wheat to make bread, no fuel, nothing, so he was forced to turn to the IMF. But apart from Cuba, there's no country at that level of development that hasn't had to borrow from the IMF.

What were the initial loans used for, and why didn't it produce anything?

The IMF is short-term loans, and the World Bank more long-term loans, and what happens is you start borrowing money from the IMF, then that gives you the OK to get the commercial bank loans, but then it's like you're borrowing money to pay back [the initial loans.] You have to devalue the currency and privatize at the same time, do all the things the IMF is saying, and you get yourself into this cycle. The IMF considers the success stories as countries that no longer borrow from them. So that's the irony. Jamaica is "a success story." It's just paying back its loan to the IMF, it's not borrowing any more money.

Manley was followed by Edward Seaga, and Seaga was a Reagan man and took billions of dollars [in loans], and really sunk the country further into debt. Manley didn't take all that much, but Seaga followed 100 percent the United States' line, which is "take more, take more."

Did the IMF's Stanley Fischer display any understanding of the reality of Jamaica's situation? Or did he just not want to acknowledge that?

I think that the IMF believes that what they're doing works. But first of all, to interview someone at that level at the IMF, you have to submit all your questions in advance. And obviously if they show any kind of perspective, you won't be granted the interview. So, the questions are, like, why does the IMF impose structural adjustment? Why does the IMF require the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar? Just all very basic questions. The feeling I got when interviewing him was, it's a pity we don't live in a world where you can actually say what you believe and have an honest discourse. Because if you do that, you'll get thrown out. At the end, I kind of said, Manley felt that borrowing from the IMF was the worst decision he ever made, and it was like, bye.

You can't do follow-up questions?

No. And they have six people in the room listening, and behind the wall. It's really strange.

After the experience of Argentina, defaulting on its debt, and now the rise of leftist governments in Brazil and Venezuela, do you think there could be some sort of movement against the IMF in Latin America?

Yes, definitely, there's a very strong movement against the IMF and the World Bank. Whether or not it can achieve concrete change, that's the question. The meeting that's coming up in July of the G-8, debt cancellation is very high on the list, but they keep talking about it, they don't take any concrete action. Is it all just some PR? They've learned very well how to take the language of their critics and make it part of their presentation. [World Bank President James] Wolfensohn and [U2 vocalist/activist] Bono hanging out together. I mean, I think that helps the World Bank's image more than it represents any concrete change. This July will be a true test of whether their money is where their mouth is, literally.

The situation you documented in the free zones was appalling.

All the free zones have actually shut down and gone to the Dominican Republic and Haiti because they can pay those workers lower wages. The USAID put a lot of money into free zones and encouraging companies to go into free-zone manufacturing, so a crazy amount of our tax dollars went into free-zone promotion. It was like science fiction; you couldn't make this stuff up. It was funny: You had the real Tommy Hilfiger goods being manufactured in the free zone, then you had the Chinese knock-offs being dumped into the country -- which is what everyone is wearing -- and then you had Chinese workers being flown in to sew the real Tommy Hilfiger stuff.

I agree with your critique, but what do you see as the solution?

The [film's] ending is a testament to the survival instincts of the Jamaicans, but as for a grand solution, I did not have one. Now I think buying local and producing local in every territory around the Earth is the most important thing to put the brakes on this. As long as people support their local farmers and local producers and make a decision that, even if it does cost a little bit more, it's worth it in the long run.

Environmentally and health-wise too, it makes a lot of sense.

Our voting power doesn't seem to hold much clout these days, but our buying power does. I think that's the strongest tool we have as an international community, not to support this process.

Whatever happened with the McDonald's lawsuit?

The good news is that the Jamaican McDonald's still exists, and the American McDonald's has left Jamaica. It shut down, people didn't like the taste. That's the good news. It makes sense -- they have really good food in the Caribbean.

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