Thursday, November 5, 2009
Jamaica + IMF + Jamaica Kincaid = Life and Debt
I am presently deeply immersed in a study of Jamaica Kincaid's controversial book, A Small Place. Kincaid, an Antiguan, wrote this amazing polemic which in my opinion, effectively deconstructs the whole myth of the Caribbean paradise that is sold to fantasy driven tourists in the glossy travel magazines. The whole issue of privileging tourists over locals is one of the issues she examines. It is much more than that though. Kincaid takes on the post-colonial government of Antigua and the "rubbish heap of history" left by the British. It is a challenging read on the first go but it is 80 pages of richness. The book's message is applicable to the experience of many Third World countries and in fact, it was adapted for a script for the documentary film Life and Debt. Life and Debt, released in 2001, chronicles Jamaica's experience with the IMF and the effect, particularly on the agriculture sector, by policies imposed by the IMF. The film is worth seeing. I do think it leaves out some important aspects of government actions that contributed to Jamaica's economic demise, however, I recommend the film for anyone who has not seen it. Particularly as Jamaica is now again waiting for an assessment from the IMF for further assistance. The film is an important statement on globalization and the havoc it causes in small economies.
Trailer for the film:
About the Film from its website:
Utilizing excerpts from the award-winning non-fiction text "A Small Place" by Jamaica Kincaid, Life & Debt is a woven tapestry of sequences focusing on the stories of individual Jamaicans whose strategies for survival and parameters of day-to-day existence are determined by the U.S. and other foreign economic agendas. By combining traditional documentary telling with a stylized narrative framework, the complexity of international lending, structural adjustment policies and free trade will be understood in the context of the day-to-day realities of the people whose lives they impact.
The film opens with the arrival of vacationers to the island-- utilizing Ms. Kincaids text as voice-over, we begin to understand the profound contrasts behind the breathtaking natural beauty of the island. The poetic urgency of Ms. Kincaids text lends a first-person understanding of the legacy of the country's colonial past, and to it's present day economic challenges. For example, as we see a montage of the vacationer in her hotel, voice-over: "When you sit down to eat your delicious meal, it's better that you don't know that most of what you are eating came off a ship from Miami. There is a world of something in this, but I can't go into it right now." (adapted excerpt "A Small Place")
As we begin to understand the post-colonial landscape outlined in Ms. Kincaids text, we cut to archival footage of Former Prime Minister Michael Manley in a post-independence speech condemning the IMF stating that "the Jamaican government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we're not for sale."
Life & Debt includes a segment on the banana industry wherein Jamaica has been granted preferential treatment from the British through the Lome Convention, providing a tax-free import quota for 105,000 tons/fruit per year to England. Through a case the U.S. brought to the WTO, the U.S. government is demanding the Lome Convention quota removed, (although the U.S. does not grow bananas on its own soil) forcing Jamaica to compete with exporters from Central America and South America. Specifically Chiquita and Dole, which are U.S. companies who produce bananas on a large scale. Central America is characterized by cheaper labor, a different soil type, high rainfall and a climate suited to large-scale banana production and thus more efficient. In 1993, a strike at Chiquita Farms in Colombia wherein 25,000 workers protesting for better wages was settled by firing shots at the striking workers and killing 40 people and the banana ships rolled insuring Chiquita's high rate of "efficiency." Jamaica's entire banana production could be produced by one farm in Central America. Banana's bring in 23 million US to Jamaica, comprising 8% of all exports. Yet, in the Windward Islands, bananas account for 50% of total exports. In St. Lucia, St.Vincent, bananas also comprise significant % of total exports, so quota loss will impact the entire Caribbean. At present the European Union has granted $600 million to help Jamaica become more efficient in their banana production so that they may attempt to compete on the "free market" in year 2000. The quota that is being so forcefully contested by US multinationals is under 5% of all global banana production. It is unlikely that the banana industry here could match the price of bananas from Central America. Already the number of small banana growers on the island have shrunk from 45,000 to 3,000.