Inside a Caribbean crisis

February 27, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone visits Batista's Cuba under the impression that he's buying into a tropical paradise. Instead he finds a political powder keg primed for explosion.

Stephanie Black's eye-opening documentary Life and Debt will put any American who's vacationed in Jamaica, or even dreamed of it, in the position of Michael Corleone. (The final entry in the Johns Hopkins Hospital's film series, "The African Diaspora II," the movie screens tomorrow night at 7:15, at the Preclinical Teaching Building, 725 N. Wolfe St. Admission is free.)

Life and Debt offers a lucid explication of how such "developing countries" as Jamaica, desperate for stability, strike crippling loan agreements with the International Monetary Fund, resulting in long-term debt and a sort of indentured servitude to advanced economies.

Along with the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the IMF dictates that Third World countries devalue their own currency (supposedly to attract foreign investors) and pull down protective tariffs. The international products that come tumbling into the marketplace swamp native industries.

Tourists who gambol in protected vacation enclaves unwittingly support an exploitative system; when Jamaicans demand a level economic playing field in farming and manufacturing, First Worlders answer, "Well, you do have tourism."

For a framing narration, Black uses lines adapted from Jamaica Kincaid's 1988 book, A Small Place, about the writer's home country, Antigua. Kincaid's observations of the dilapidated Antiguan infrastructure transfer aptly to Jamaica, and her vantage-point as an expatriate allows her to mesh anger and grief. She writes of tourists trying to escape "the boredom and banality" of their lives, not realizing that the natives they romanticize would love to escape a more dire sort of boredom and banality.

The movie unrolls a roster of economic injustices: the Jamaican milk industry drying out due to imported powdered milk; native beef and poultry sales deteriorating because of cheap, enzyme-ridden stuff used in American fast food; such U.S. fruit giants as Dole and Chiquita challenging Jamaican bananas' exclusive sales to Britain and Europe; and the creation of Jamaican Free Zones that are simply unregulated areas where foreign businesses run sweat shops.

Even at an 86-minute length, the movie is too hammerheaded and repetitive. Luckily, the Jamaican culture gives it a unique incendiary swing. With an array of songs from Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Peter Tosh and others, Life and Debt reminds us that reggae is a raging music - and that its fires burn still.

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