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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

By John Perkins
Berrett Koehler Publishers, 264 pages, $24.95
Coming clean about U.S. corporatocracy

Reviewed by TOM KEENE

“The Odyssey of a Conscience” could have been the subtitle of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

Like most of us, Mr. Perkins grew up believing that America was a liberating force, encouraging democracy and self-determination for other nations. He also took for granted the American notion that success is rewarded with money and power.

In the 10 years between 1971 and 1981, Mr. Perkins worked for an international consulting firm where he earned impressive job titles and salaries. Mr. Perkins’ real function was to serve as an Economic Hit Man, or EHM, for corporate enterprise in the Third World to build global empire. EHMs, he writes, use “international financing organizations to foment conditions that make other nations subservient to the corporatocracy running our biggest corporations, our government and our banks.”

The Economic Hit Man’s primary tools are loans to develop the infrastructures that serve corporations: “electric generating plants, highways, ports, airports or industrial parks.” A key condition of each loan is that the project be built by U.S. engineering and construction companies. While the money goes right to the U.S. firms, “the recipient country is required to pay it all back, principal plus interest.” The debts are so large that eventually the debtor country has to default. The debt becomes a lever forcing that country to serve U.S. and corporate interests, whether with “United Nations votes, the installation of military bases or access to precious resources such as oil.” If debt is not enough, other tools are brought in -- “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder.” So, as Mr. Perkins notes, “another country is added to our global empire.”

In his travels, Mr. Perkins made it a point to learn to converse in the languages of the countries to which he was assigned. This gave him access to people that other Economic Hit Men did not have access to. Though consulting with wealthy and English-speaking elites, Mr. Perkins hung out with students and workers who gave him an earful of how his work steals from the poor and gives to the rich.

To demonstrate the impact of EHMs, Mr. Perkins offers the example of Ecuador, the country he served in as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1968. “We loaned it billions of dollars so it could hire our engineering and construction firms to build projects that would help its richest families. As a result, in ... three decades, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion, and the share of national resources allocated to the poorest citizens declined from 20 percent to 6 percent.

Today, Ecuador must devote nearly 50 percent of its national budget simply to paying off its debts -- instead of to helping the millions of its citizens who are officially classified as dangerously impoverished.”

Mr. Perkins recalls driving past a concrete dam for which he had arranged financing. The dam had dried up the living of families in dozens of fishing villages, and he contemplated how his job imposed costs on people and on nature: an oil pipeline that leaked twice what the Exxon Valdez spilled; the near vanishing of fragile rain forests, macaws and jaguars; three Ecuadorian indigenous cultures “driven to near collapse”; and “pristine rivers transformed into cesspools.” Considering all this, Mr. Perkins broke into a sweat, his stomach churning. Conscience was hitting the hit man.

Conscience had struck before in 1977 when Mr. Perkins met a “beautiful Colombian woman who would become a powerful agent for change in my life.” Prior to meeting Paula, Mr. Perkins would always find “a way to rationalize staying in the system.”

“She convinced me to go deep inside myself and see that I would never be happy as long as I continued in that role.”

Mr. Perkins quit the role of EHM in 1981 but kept a cautious silence about the EHM system. With the help of contacts in high places, he built his own alternative energy company, Independent Power Systems Inc. Later he sold it for big money to Ashland Oil Company. He entered the nonprofit turf and worked with indigenous people in Latin America while teaching folks in Europe and North America about these cultures. He wrote five books about that endeavor, always avoiding “references to my EHM activities.”

As Mr. Perkins looked at his daughter, he came to understand that without coming clean about EHMs, all his books and works could not assuage his conscience or do his duty to his daughter. “Jessica was inheriting a world where millions of children are saddled with debts they will never be able to repay. And I had to accept responsibility for it.” With that bit of clarity, Mr. Perkins resolved to write his Confessions. He made it a fast and engaging read.

For Mr. Perkins, “confessing was an essential part of my personal wake up call. Like all confessions, it is the first step toward redemption.” Mr. Perkins invites his readers in America’s democratic republic turned empire to examine their own conscience and to make confession about our denial and complicity.

Tom Keene is a retired professor of religious studies at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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