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VOL 3. NO. 32 Monday, August 20 - Sunday, August 26, 2001
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Life and Debt: The Economic Survival of An Island Nation, Part II
By Avonie BROWN
Montego Bay, JAMAICA - Now that our family vacation is coming to an end, I find myself in a rush to absorb as much of the flavor of "home" as possible. This will have to sustain me until we make the trek again next summer to reconnect with family and friends. While I spend a lot of time indulging in the typical tourist fair, I'm also struck by the absurdity of the situation. As a returning Jamaican I'm often allowed greater access to enjoy the treasures of the country than many resident Jamaicans. Economics and social/cultural mores maintain some strike codes of conduct and access. You at once struck by the vibrant and awe-inspiring beauty of the country as well as thriving and evolving economic sectors, just as you are overwhelming by the depth of poverty that define the lives of many. And many tourists remain oblivious to these stark realities in paradise, as they are held "captive" on beautifully manicured all-inclusive hotel properties.

It is this disturbing reality that motivated producer/director Stephanie Black to make the 90-minute feature documentary, "Life and Debt" scheduled to air on PBS on August 21. "I had made a documentary called "H2 Worker", and went down to film the Jamaican farm workers who would go on the program in Florida to cut sugar cane. I went down to Jamaica to film them in their homes and I fell in love with the country, as anyone who's ever been to Jamaica does,' Black said in an interview. "This question kept playing in my mind over and over, how could a country that is this rich, this beautiful and this resourceful, in its people, its culture and its agriculture actually be this poor? Everyday in the paper there was always an article on whether Jamaica was meeting its benchmark to the IMF. There was this whole rigmarole the country was continually going through on a day to day basis to affirm that it was ascribing to the structural adjustment program and connected programs. So by reading the paper day to day and coming to understand something I had no working knowledge of by living in The United States, it became a kind of personal interest."

Black's aim with this film is very clear; it is to "… clarify, simplify and make visible an essentially invisible subject matter--the impact of economic policies on the day to day lives of people whom these policies are ostensibly supposed to benefit but actually don't." And that goal is achieved because the documentary captivates you from beginning to end with the use of a diverse group of Jamaican's who tell their story. And without exception the interviewees told stories that were poignant, heart-rending and at times even quite humorous. Black said she had no trouble find willing and able participants because she went in with a very open attitude and each one lead her to another.

"Everyone was so articulate, there were so many people who could share their stories so eloquently and were very interested in sharing their story. I think a lot of the farmers understood very clearly that this was going to be an opportunity to speak to the American public and they're very clearly aware that these policies aren't coming from the American public but from institutions that people aren't aware of. So the intent of the film was shared by everyone," Black said.

In addition to conversations with individuals who had to deal with the impact of IMF policies in their daily lives, Black spoke to some of the key decision-makers. The late former Prime Minister Michael Manley had an opportunity in the documentary to articulate the circumstances that forced him to sign Jamaica's first IMF agreement in 1973 even though he had held a strong non-IMF stand. He had to reverse his position because the country was experiencing an oil crisis and needed an influx of foreign exchange to purchase oil to keep hospitals open and the manufacturing sector operational. He tried without success to borrow money from some of the same wealthy oil producing countries directly and even the Soviet Union, but when no loans were granted he had to succumb to the IMF demands.

Manley is not alone. Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti and President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana both had non-IMF positions and as they share in the film, they too were forced to sign on with the organization in an attempt to maintain essential services in their countries. Today, even though Jamaica is not a signatory on any IMF loans, the country remains under the noose of the organization's structural adjustment plans, forced to do its bidding because Jamaica is still responsible for the loan repayment. IMF requirements have included such counter-productive demands as the elimination/shift in focus from some crops that were produced local. The apparent logic was time and resources should instead be invested into crops that would yield sufficient foreign exchange so that Jamaica could make payments on their IMF debt. The film illustrates how the banana, diary, irish potato, vegetable, beef and chicken industries have all suffered as a consequence. The net result is an increasing dependency on imported goods which has placed an even greater strain on the local economy.

The situation, especially for Jamaica's poor, is clearly difficult. Some have even theorized that the recent rise in what has been termed "tribal warfare" in West Kingston, is a manipulation by a few of the fears and desperation of poor people. But the situation is far from hopeless and Jamaica has shown how resourceful it can be in the face of severe conditions. After only 39 years the country is still coming to terms with the true meaning of independence. What my beloved country now needs is innovative leadership from individuals who truly recognize and are willing to utilize the energy and creativity of its people.

In the words of Maurice Bishop, one of the region's most forward thinking leaders, "… when we make it clear as a government that our intention is to address the basic needs and the basic problems of our people, when we tell them that our intention is to stop looking outward for solutions from the metropolitan centres…but instead to begin to turn our eyes inwards to our country … to try to find solution for our problems based on our needs and on our resources, that when these things are done, a lot is possible."

Other Jamaican Happenings
  • Prime Minister P.J. Patterson recently announced that Canadian Chief Justice Julius Isaac, a Grenadian by birth, will head the commission investigating the violence in West Kingston in early July as well as the rise in crime and violence across the island.

  • Louise Bennett-Coverley, affectionately known as "Miss Lou," will be among 108 individuals honored on Oct. 15, 2001, National Heroes Day. The 82 year old who now resides in Ontario, Canada with her husband, 90 year-old Eric Coverly, will receive the Order of Merit, Jamaica's third highest honor for her invaluable and distinguished contribution to the development of Jamaica in arts and culture. This internationally renowned folklorist has been one of the country's strongest and enduring cultural icons who utilized Patios, the Jamaican dialect, in her poetry, music storytelling and theatrical performances. Her works represents some of the most comprehensive documentation of the language.

  • Ambassador Richard Bernal will end his 10-year post as Jamaica's Ambassador to the United States on Aug. 31, 2001. He leaves the Washington, D.C. based post for duties at Jamaica House and his new appointment as Chief Technical Advisor at the Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM), a branch of the Caribbean Community (CariCom). A new ambassador has not yet been named.

  • Will marijuana be legalised in Jamaica for personal use? The commission led by Professor Barry Chevannes has been examining the issue since Nov. 6, 2000. They were mandated to review existing Jamaican laws on marijuana and make recommendations based on the country's specific cultural and economic situation. They had to also evaluate the impact any legislative changes would have on International treaties to which Jamaica is a signatory. In accepting the report Prime Minister P.J. Patterson says that it will be made public soon and debated before a decision is made.

  • Prime Minister P.J. Patterson also recently announced that there will be a review of Jamaica's minimum wage rates. This follows a report by the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) that confirms that workers earning the minimum wage were living below the poverty line. The last rate hike came in 1999 when the minimum wage rose from $800 to $1200 per week or from approximately $20 to $30 per week in US funds. It has been suggested that anything less than $4500 ($US100) would be inadequate.

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