It is 1998, I’m 16 and going on my first large protest. It’s in Birmingham for the Jubilee 2000 demonstration, calling for the G8 group of self-appointed most important countries to cancel the debt of 52 other countries.
In a church before we head out to the human chain to surround the summit, a lone guitarist sings Bob Marley’s Redemption Song:
“Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom?”
In 1998 I was late to the movement. In Jamaica, activists had been calling for non-payment of the debt for two decades already. When Bob Marley wrote Redemption Song in 1979, the Jamaican people had already been suffering five years of economic crisis, with a root cause being the unsustainable and unjust debt.
In Kingston this week, a leader of the women’s movement recalled to me how in the 1980s she toured the country, mobilising people to stand up against the debt. “We women suffered the most from the debt and IMF austerity, so we were the first to resist it.”
The global protests were eventually credited with getting $130 billion of debt cancelled for 35 countries, including Jamaica’s neighbours Guyana and Haiti. But in Jamaica the debt has remained, with the island classed as ‘too rich’ by countries far richer than it, to qualify for debt relief. The verses have changed over the years, but the tune of IMF austerity, government cuts, privatisation, and trying to pay an unpayable debt, has remained.
A Jamaican economist tells me there have been three key impacts on the size of the debt. The government has often had to take on debts and losses from private and publicly owned companies, including as a result of a banking crash in the 1990s. Hurricanes have regularly destroyed infrastructure, which has meant the government taking out loans to rebuild. And the western banking crisis hit Jamaica hard through loss of tourism revenues, and exports – particularly of bauxite – the raw material for aluminium.
I talk to a nurse in a health clinic in Kingston the capital. A doctor’s appointment at the clinic costs US$10. Government free health centres are available, but the nurse tells me that often people will have to wait all day, and still may not get to see a doctor. When the clinic has patients who have an emergency, they are referred to the accident and emergency department at the public hospital, but are sometimes turned away because it is full.
Debt payments make-up over 50% of the Jamaican government’s budget. Since the early 1970s, the Jamaican government has been lent US$18.6 billion from overseas, repaid $20.7 billion, but is still said today to ‘owe’ $14.8 billion.
The latest attempt by the government to make the debt payable, with the ‘advice’ of the IMF, involves large cuts in pay in real terms, numerous new taxes, and cuts in public spending.
For those in work, getting by becomes an ever greater struggle. The nurse tells me “When you get your pay, the bills use up all the money, and nothing is left over.” Another health worker says “Every time prices go up, we go and borrow to survive. Our pay goes straight to the lender. It’s a lose-lose situation. We are in the same debt trap as the government.”
Kingston is currently in a serious drought. A taxi driver tells me “We are meant to get rain in April, but it has not arrived. I guess it is global warming. There should be rain in May, but who knows? We need it.” In uptown Kingston where I’ve stayed the taps are often dry at night as the water commission tries to manage consumption. But in other areas of the city, the water may only be on for one or two hours a day.
The lack of rain is one cause, but the lack of money to invest in water infrastructure is another. Jamaica, like other Small Island Developing States, is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with changes in rainfall, and stronger hurricanes.
On my first day in Kingston, I meet a farmer who is in town for the day. He tells me: “We farmers don’t get any support from our government, so our shops are full of imports from elsewhere. Near my place there are so many empty fields. Outsiders tell us to grow, but we can’t compete.”
At a meeting with church groups, I meet one church member who grew up on a dairy farm. But the dairy industry in Jamaica was decimated when the IMF and World Bank pushed for the removal of protections from overseas milk powder. Subsidised European milk began to enter the country, undercutting local producers. “People got cheaper milk for a while, but we were left more dependent than before.” Another church member says: “Foreign policies have killed our agricultural sector. If the bankers want to get their money back, let us work.”
At the same meeting, people talk about the huge potential they see in Jamaica. Agriculture. Wind and solar energy. The creativity and talent of the Jamaican people. But the debt acts as a brake, taking so many valuable resources, and handing power to creditors to determine policies. “It’s like putting me in a race with Usain Bolt, and giving me a 200 pound bag of rubble on my shoulders” says one Jamaican.
Finally cancelling Jamaica’s debt would not be a silver bullet to addressing all these problems. But it would give a break from the absurd tragedy of 40 years of high debt payments and austerity damaging the economy, and leaving the debt as high as it was before. It would allow for a change of direction.
Another church member tells me what economic success would be in Jamaica: “It does not mean the banks get their money back, it means the Jamaican people getting back their dignity.”