Imperialism’s economic war

• Confessions of an Economic Hit Man – The shocking inside story of how America* really took over the world. John Perkins, Ebury Press, 2006, 250pp, £7.99

John Perkins was trained in business administration at Boston University College, but in 1971 he was targeted by a mysterious woman who seduced him and inducted him into the dirty business of war against communism. His war was not to be the violence of armed conflict, but the ‘soft’ war of economic conquest.

At that time the outcome of the Vietnam War was looking uncertain and the US military was looking for an alternative base to secure its sphere of influence in the East. President Nixon’s advisers decided to move against the new Republic of Indonesia which, free from Dutch and then Japanese rule, had elected its first leader, President Sukarno. Determined to win the pro-Soviet republic away from communism, the US fomented and backed a brutal coup in which an estimated 500,000 people, mostly pro-communist peasants, were slaughtered, and put the US puppet General Suharto in place. US military control was complemented by economic control and US corporations moved in to dominate the planning structures and primary resources of the country, including oil.

Perkins had little economic and no engineering knowledge. Nevertheless he was hired to persuade the Indonesian government to accept enormous development loans for electrification and water construction - and to make sure that these projects were contracted to US companies. He became an Economic Hit Man (EHM). In his own words:

‘Economic Hit Men are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder... Once these countries were saddled with huge debts, the American government would request their “pound of flesh” in favours, including access to natural resources, military cooperation and political support.’

It took many years and several attempts before John Perkins found the courage to get his story written and published. Following 11 September 2001 Perkins felt both guilty and shamed into answering the questions raised by so many: why is the US so hated? Why do terrorists attack us? Perkins gives this reply:

‘Executives at our most respected companies hire people at near slave wages to toil under inhuman conditions in Asian sweatshops. Oil companies wantonly pump toxins into rain forests, consciously killing people, animals, and plants, and committing genocide among ancient cultures. The pharmaceutical industry denies lifesaving medicines to millions of HIV-infected Africans.’

As an EHM since the early 1970s, Perkins’ confession is personal but his activities are not unique. As he says, it is also the story of many who today ‘walk in the corridors of Monsanto, General Electric, and Nike, General Motors, Wal-Mart, and nearly every other major corporation in the world’.

Perkins describes the impact on a country once it becomes a target of US big business development plans and his examples are precise and well documented. For example:

‘Because of my fellow EHMs and me, Ecuador is in far worse shape today than she was before we introduced her to the miracle of modern economics, banking and engineering. Since 1970, during the period euphemistically known as the Oil Boom, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 per cent, under- or unemployment increased from 15 to 70 per cent, and public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion. Meanwhile the share of national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20 to 6 per cent.’

Not only are millions of people impoverished and saddled with unpayable debt, but the economic and social structures of the country are distorted to obscene extremes, so that ‘the top one per cent of third world households accounts for 70 to 90 per cent of all private financial wealth and real estate ownership in their country; the actual percentage depends on the specific country’.

Although directly serving the national interests of the US military and industrial ruling class, the work of EHMs is buried within the complicated structures of big corporations. Behind them, even deeper in the shadows, are the CIA-sanctioned jackals who move in if countries turn down the plans and proposals for US control. The jackals carry out the executions of those national leaders who will not be bullied or bribed into submission.

Jaime Roldos of Ecuador and Omar Torrijos of Panama both died in plane crashes in 1981 and Perkins makes the case that both were killed by CIA jackals because they defied plans for a US takeover of their countries’ wealth and resources. The Panamanian government has just announced that it will be reopening the post-mortem on Torrijos following the revelations in this book.

Finally, however, if neither the EHMs nor the Jackals succeed, then the US moves to war, invasion and occupation: ‘And if by chance the jackals fail, as they failed in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the old models resurface. When the jackals fail, young Americans are sent in to kill and die.’

Militarism and war are not the only consequences of living in a country that oppresses and dominates others. The population that benefits from the systematic exploitation of most of the rest of the world is consuming a flow of parasitical wealth flooding into the USA from overseas.
‘Is anyone in the US innocent? Although those at the pinnacle of the economic pyramid gain the most, millions of us depend – either directly or indirectly – on the exploitation of the LDCs. The resources and cheap labour that feed nearly all our businesses come from places like Indonesia, and very little ever makes its way back. . . Does the excuse that most Americans are unaware of this constitute innocence? Uninformed and intentionally misinformed, yes, but innocent?’

Yet those who collaborate also have a price to pay. The corporations have tied the US population to a future of domestic debt, consumerism and environmental degradation. ‘As one of the wealthiest societies in history, America also has some of the highest statistics on violence, depression, drug abuse and crime. Twelve million families in our own United States worry about their next meal.’

This book is highly recommended reading, not only as a historical record of US imperialism but also as an indictment of capitalism as a whole. Perkins concludes that production for profit and not for use is at the root of the entire system of economic, social, military and political domination that he describes. It is not a question of a few bad men and there is no organised conspiracy. He says, ‘I wish it were so simple. Members of a conspiracy can be rooted out and brought to justice. This system, however, is fuelled by something far more dangerous than a conspiracy’. The name of that system is, of course, imperialism and if there is to be any hope for the future of mankind it must be destroyed.
Susan Davidson

* Throughout the book John Perkins uses the term America to signify the United States of America.

FRFI 190 April / May 2006