|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
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
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."
- 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.