"Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the world out of trillions of dollars...I should know; I was an EHM." —Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
Following the treacherous road that winds down the Andes mountain range from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, a Subaru Outback makes a Dante-esque descent into the heart of the Amazonian jungle, where an American oil company has transformed the once-lush rainforests into "flaming cesspools" awash with "oil, heavy metals, and carcinogens." Riding in the car, John Perkins feels a special connection to Ecuador, having first visited this Latin American nation decades earlier. He also bears a special guilt for the country's catastrophic decline over the thirty-five years that followed—after all, his work was instrumental in making it happen.
As the title promises, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is the detailed mea culpa of a man with many transgressions to reveal. A social outsider who grew up envying the wealth and status of his affluent classmates at a prestigious New Hampshire prep school, Perkins found himself easily seduced into the ranks of "Economic Hit Men" (EHMs)—corporate professionals who employ "fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder" to mire developing nations in unserviceable debt and bring them under the control of American financial interests.
Recruited first by the National Security Agency (NSA)—which identified his greed and vanity as exploitable personality traits—Perkins instead followed his more altruistic impulses and joined the Peace Corps. Assigned to Ecuador, he was enchanted by the untouched beauty of the land and fascinated by the ancient cultures of its many indigenous peoples. It is here that he met Einar Greve of the MAIN Corporation, an international consulting firm charged with assessing the economic potential of developing nations in order to qualify them for loans from the World Bank and other institutions. Seeing an opportunity to help countries like Ecuador join the modern world—and to gain the wealth and prestige he so craves—Perkins accepted a job as an economist at MAIN in early 1971.
In a twist that might have been lifted from a novel by Graham Greene, one of his literary heroes, Perkins was soon approached by Claudine Martin, a beautiful "consultant" to MAIN, who had been asked to assist in his training. Playing on his NSA-identified weaknesses for women and money, she laid out the true nature of his job: to develop wildly optimistic economic forecasts that justify oversized loans to third world nations, the funds from which are then routed back to U.S. engineering firms, which receive exclusive construction contracts as a condition of these loans. Furthermore, when these nations inevitably default, they will then be under perpetual obligation to their creditors—the United States government and its corporate and financial institutions.
Over the next decade, Perkins traveled around the world under the auspices of MAIN, carrying out his clandestine agenda and manipulating statistics to serve the interests of the American "corporatocracy." He became a rising star, catapulting up the corporate ranks at unprecedented speed and indulging in all the perks and privileges that come with it. But at the same time, his natural affinity for foreign cultures led him to explore the dark side of his profession: the widening gap between rich and poor, the virtual enslavement of native populations, the ruthless elimination of any foreign leader who dared refuse the Faustian bargain offered by the EHMs.
As his status continued to rise, so did his discomfort with the role he was playing in the creation of this new type of empire. Through a series of encounters—a secret meeting with a mutilated Iranian dissident, a chance run-in with Graham Greene, an affair with a Colombian woman whose brother is an anti-American guerrilla, an audience with Omar Torrijos, the principled leader of Panama—Perkins began to grasp the true magnitude of the damage that he and his fellow EHMs have wrought around the world. Ignoring Claudine's long-ago warning that "Once you're in, you're in for life," Perkins resigned from MAIN in 1980.
After being persuaded to remain silent for almost a quarter of a century, the events of September 11, 2001, convinced Perkins to finally share his story with the world. This Confession is not simply the clearing of one man's conscience; it is a call to action. "It is your story too," he writes, "the story of your world and mine, of the first truly global empire. History tells us that unless we modify this story, it is guaranteed to end tragically. . . . It is now time for each and every one of us to step up to the battle line, to ask the important questions, to search our souls for our own answers, and to take action."
ABOUT JOHN PERKINS
John Perkins is founder and president of the Dream Change Coalition, which works closely with Amazonian and other indigenous people to help preserve their environments and cultures. From 1971 to 1981 he worked for the international consulting firm of Chas.T. Main, where he became chief economist and director of economics and regional planning. Perkins has lectured and taught at universities and learning centers on four continents and is a regular lecturer for the Omega Center.A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN PERKINS
In your introduction, you admit that you put off writing this book at least in part because you feared for your life. Have you received any direct or indirect threats in response to its publication?
Jackals don't threaten you; they kill without warning.
And yes, I have been threatened. While the vast majority of the hundreds of letters and emails I have received are very supportive, there have been a few menacing ones—mostly from people who do not identify themselves. The "official" position of government and other organizations like the World Bank seems to be "no comment." I certainly understand this because, as an EHM, I was trained to ignore opposition whenever possible. We were taught: "Don't give it energy and it may go away." However, as I said, jackals don't issue threats. The fear is of the "crazy" person who comes up to you after a speech and shoots you without warning. "Crazy" people killed John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lennon. We never learned who sponsored them. These types of assassinations have been highly effective at stopping progressive movements in the U.S.
You write at length about the "coincidences" that help determine the course of our lives. Have you ever considered what course your life might have taken had you never met Ann—an event that led indirectly to your career as an EHM?
I used to wonder about such things, but I came to understand that it is the way we react to the coincidences that makes the difference. Meeting Ann was a coincidence. Given that, I had many choices. I decided to ask her to marry me and then to seek her father's help and get an interview with the National Security Agency. I chose to go into the Peace Corps and to accept a job with MAIN. Coincidences may have opened the door, but I chose to become an EHM.
As you point out, Jimmy Carter is the only president in recent memory who seemed interested in steering the U.S. away from empire-building. Given today's political climate, do you think there is any hope for another Carter-like presidency in the near future?
Jimmy Carter seemed to have this potential; however, he never defined a vision that stirred the American people. He was unable to mobilize enough support to get any sort of movement going, assuming that was his desire. Unfortunately, the fact is that during the Carter Administration the corporatocracy made great strides.
What we need right now is someone who is not afraid to articulate a new vision—one that truly promotes justice, equality, environmental stewardship, and a commitment to creating a better world for our children—and is willing to fight to turn this vision into reality. We need leaders who are truthful with us, who honestly define the terrible crises we face, including global warming, overpopulation, the extreme gap between the few rich and the multitudes of poor, the anger and hatred directed at the U.S. by people who feel exploited and enslaved, and the irresponsible use of power by corporate and government officials. We need leaders who challenge us to make sacrifices now so that future generations may survive. In summary, the type of leaders who can save us from going the way of all past empires are ones who will honestly expose the problems, come up with a new vision, and inspire us to move forward. We've had plenty of leaders like that over the years—Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Maria Stewart, the Grimké sisters, Rachal Carson, and Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few.
After listing the many inequities that the American "empire" has created throughout the world, you ask, "And we wonder why terrorists attack us?" Some would label you a traitor for suggesting that we are somehow responsible for the events of 9/11. How would you respond?
I am a loyal American. I believe we are a great country and I am committed to doing my part to uphold those values I was raised to respect as deeply American. Anyone who would deny that we have created inequalities has not traveled to the areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East that have been destroyed by U.S. oil companies, has not visited the shantytowns where people live who slave in sweatshops that produce tennis shoes and plastic goods for corporations whose executives zip around in private jets, and has not read about our opposition to international courts of law and environmental protocols. Such inequalities generate hatred. Hatred that has no other recourse breeds terrorism.
A traitor is someone who abets attempts to destroy his country or erode its principles. Corporate executives, politicians, and government officials who place personal greed above the American ideals of justice, equality, and liberty for all—or who contribute to creating conditions that spawn terrorism—are traitors.
The type of hatred that resulted in 9/11 is on the rise not because authors like me write about abuses on the part of the corporatocracy, but because millions of people are impoverished and have been exploited by the international business, banking, and governmental communities, including the World Bank, IMF, and branches of the U.S. government.
Your view of the media—especially your admonition to "read between the lines" of mainstream reporting—strongly echoes Noam Chomsky. Would you consider him a kindred spirit?
The very idea of democracy is based on the assumption that its members are educated. True education—as opposed to propaganda posing as education—requires that we question our leaders. We must constantly demand that they explain themselves, their motives, and their policies. Noam Chomsky is one of the voices seeking to educate us. I haven't met him personally and have no idea whether or not he is a kindred spirit, but I certainly encourage him to continue to ask questions and demand accountability on the part of our leaders.
What are your thoughts on the work of George Soros and the Open Society Institute? Is this an example of a member of the corporatocracy using his power to change the system, or of one (however well-intentioned) who is simply perpetuating it through other means?
Unlike the World Bank, many corporations, and branches of the U.S. government, I have never been involved with George Soros or the Open Society Institute. I try to limit my discussions to things I know about through personal experience. Anything I might say about Soros or the Institute would be speculation.
Do you have any desire to follow in the footsteps of Graham Greene and write novels based on your experiences?
You honor me by asking this question. Graham Greene was a great writer whose novels educated millions of people about conditions in many parts of the world. All my books have been nonfiction and I am hard at work on another, a follow-up to Confessions that goes into detail about things each of us can do to diminish the impact of the corporatocracy, transform the U.S. from empire-builder to a model for democracy, and make the world a better place for our children. For now, I think I should stick to writing about the facts as I know them. When I talked with Graham Greene in Panama, he advised me to write about "things that matter"; I have tried to follow his advice and will continue to do so.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSMany economic and political theorists would argue that the miserable conditions created by the modernization of developing nations are simply unavoidable "growing pains" on the way to a mature market economy—not unlike the conditions that existed in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Do you see any legitimacy to this argument? If so, how would you defend it? If not, how would you counter it?
History has repeatedly demonstrated that those who benefit from a grossly inequitable economic system will not allow that system to be dismantled unless forced to do so through violent means (such as the French and American revolutions). Do you think it is possible to overcome this historical truth and affect a peaceful "revolution"? Can you point to any modern or historical examples that might serve as a model for doing so?
Perkins writes that "Saddam would still be in charge if he had played the game as the Saudis had. He would have his missiles and chemical plants; we would have built them for him. . . ." Even if this is correct, the fact remains that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who has now been deposed. Does this alone justify the war, even if it was not the reason for it? Do you agree with Perkins' assessment of the true motivations for the U.S. invasion?
Pat Robertson has infamously called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, and the U.S. government was considering options for removing him from power before the "war on terrorism" took precedence. Before reading this book, were you particularly aware of Chavez and his alleged danger to the United States? If so, has the book changed your opinion of him? What about other Latin American leaders who have taken a stand against U.S. policies, such as Omar Torrijos and Jaime Roldós?
In the epilogue, Perkins writes that one of the steps that we can take to change the system is to "shop responsibly"—that is, avoid products that are manufactured by exploited laborers. Do you think this sort of grassroots boycott can really have an effect on the policies of multinational corporations? And even if it cannot, do you think we have a moral obligation to avoid these products?
Perkins argues that terrorism is a tactic of last resort that has been employed by exploited populations lacking any other means of challenging U.S. imperialism—much like the "terrorist" actions of America's founders in response to British imperialism. Do you agree with this argument, or do you see it as a case of moral relativism? If we accept Perkins' thesis that these populations have been exploited by the United States, what other, more justifiable tactics could they have turned to in response?
Perkins details the great lengths that successive U.S. administrations have gone to in order to retain control of the Panama Canal. Given the canal's strategic and economic importance, does the United States have a justifiable rationale for usurping Panama's sovereignty in this matter? And even if so, do you see any way that this rationale could extend to blocking Japanese efforts to build a second canal?
After reading this book, do you feel any personal responsibility for the actions taken by the American corporatocracy? Do you agree that we have a moral obligation to take action against it?