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    Life and Debt

    Getting debtor all the time

    "Life and Debt" is an unforgettable look at the real human consequences of economic globalization, focusing on farmers and workers in Jamaica.


    One of the most disturbing aspects of the free-trade issue is that in the entire media, the opposition has had virtually no chance to state its case despite its numbers in the streets of Seattle, Toronto and around Europe. In the media, whether corporate-owned or the usually intelligent and balanced NPR, what passes for intelligent discussion of the issue is the patently wrong platitude "A rising tide lifts all boats."

    Directed by: Stephanie Black.
    Narrated by: Jamaica Kincaid.

    Related links: Official site
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  • The reason that's wrong is that every economic change creates winners and losers. You can't just add up the total dollars made and declare everybody a winner when everybody doesn't have a share in the gains. The losers might be U.S. workers whose auto plant closed down or farmers who've lost their land, or — as in the case of Jamaica, as seen in the devastating new documentary "Life and Debt" — they might be whole countries.

    The film puts a human face — many human faces — on the debt crisis and the effects of open trade on a Third World country.

    One of the most striking faces is a farmer standing in an overgrown field and wearing a Miami Dolphins cap while he talks about the effects of opening the country to U.S. agribusiness. "When I was young, everybody around here was involved in growing peanuts," he says. "Now those days are over. They are fattening a few people at the expense of a whole culture. I blame the politicians who would sign such a policy."

    The film then goes straight to those politicians — principally former Prime Minister Michael Manley, who doesn't disagree with the farmer for a second. Manley tells how, once the country became dependent on the International Monetary Fund, it no longer had the power to make its own economic decisions. Now it taxes the people almost double to pay interest and it's forced into budget cuts and trade concessions by the International Monetary Fund.

    Life and Debt  
    So what does the IMF have to say for itself? No apologies — putting the squeeze on the little countries of the world is just business as usual, according to one high-level official. "The issue is to make globalization work for the benefit of all!" he adds cheerily. This should remind you of the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. And the clear message of "Life and Debt" is that there are millions of people impoverished by economic globalization, no matter what official opinion says about all of us bobbing happily atop the waves of change.

    A few points in the film that shouldn't be overlooked:

    1. In case you thought the liberal, liberal Clinton administration was hard at work protecting wage earners around the world, much of this devastation was related to Clinton policies. In particular, the Clinton administration overturned a European policy that gave market access to bananas from former colonies in the Caribbean. We see the decline in the Jamaican banana industry, and one farmer points out that Clinton was not even protecting U.S. growers, because there aren't any, but rather boosting U.S. corporations with low-wage operations in Central America.

    2. Economists would suggest that the Jamaicans are being pushed off the land in order to specialize in other industries where the country has a competitive advantage. Of course, bananas should be just such an industry. Besides that, there's low-wage manufacturing, and Jamaica even has a special free-trade zone to promote it. But the zone is partly beyond Jamaica's legal control, leading to labor abuses that are detailed in the film — wages of just $30 a week are routinely docked, and workers are harassed for moves toward organization or reform. A basic lesson from the film is that while economists base their concepts on an idealized model, real-world conditions are never neutral — which is why businesses, with U.S. government assistance, are flocking to free-trade zones and anti-labor countries where conditions are in their favor.

    3. If you've taken a vacation in Jamaica, you weren't really in Jamaica. You were, more or less, in Disneyland. Repeatedly we see scenes of Americans acting like idiots in their protected resort paradises, as narrator Jamaica Kincaid points out how little they see of what's really going on outside the gates — and how much less happy they'd be if they knew about the Third World food they're eating and the Third World water they're swimming in.

    Our mainstream media simply don't cover the issues illustrated in "Life and Debt," portraying free-trade protesters as crackpots, unruly mobs and misguided youth, and giving us only simplistic metaphors about boats as compensation for lost jobs and human oppression. It's been striking how little serious discussion we've had as we've handed over the keys to the economy, and "Life and Debt" — though obviously one-sided — is one of the first clear looks at what's wrong with the line we're being fed. It's an important film because it's not satisfied with talking heads; it tromps through the fields and talks to the people themselves.

    JUNE 14, 2001

    Reader comments on Life and Debt:

  • A very sad film   from Fernando, May 31, 2002
  • Re: A very sad film   from kathy, Mar 25, 2004
  • suraj:   from Suraj Dadhwal, May 17, 2004
  • fuck globalization   from jay, Jun 17, 2004
  • Re: fuck globalization   from Avera, Sep 24, 2004
  • Re: fuck globalization   from , Dec 15, 2009
  • fuck the IMF and world bank   from Unknown, Oct 30, 2006
  • Let's do something about it.   from Keanu Hu, Apr 13, 2010

  • Post a comment on "Life and Debt"