“I’m haunted every day by what I did as an economic hit man (EHM).” Those are John Perkins’s opening words of his autobiographical tell-all The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. While the book cover and title initially drew me into this story, I was a little hesitant that this was a tome laden with conspiracy theories. Digging a little deeper before I decided to read the book, I learned that this edition is an update and expansion to the Confessions of an Economic Hit Man that received stellar reviews from publications like The New York Times and Boston Globe—both threw around the words “astonishing” and “riveting” un-ironically which lent much needed credibility to a controversial topic. While this book is a work of non-fiction, if you are interested in spy novels, political thrillers, or just international politics, read on!
We meet our protagonist John Perkins fresh out of business school in 1968 as he is determining how he will evade serving in the Vietnam War. Two viable options presented themselves to John – the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Peace Corps. While he originally began to pursue the NSA and even participated in a few interviews, the chance to travel to Latin America with the Peace Corps and work with native peoples was an adventure that his heart could not pass up. Little did John know that his time in Ecuador helping to build communities would lead him into the life of an ‘economic hit man.’
According to the author, an ‘economic hit man’ (EHM) is one who promotes corporate interests in developing countries through economic extortion. EHM’s are trained professionals who leverage foreign aid through organizations like the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to trap poor countries into a hopeless cycle of debt. Leaders of these countries are made to believe that they are receiving help to industrialize, however, in reality, aid is used to promote American oil and power companies within the country in a move that helps the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. For example, Perkins describes how he was tasked with creating economic forecasts to show foreign leaders how their countries could develop exponentially with investment into American power plants. Perkins’s forecasts showed growth of 16 – 18%, while in reality, one could not reasonably expect more than a 6% return. Dazzled by the prospect of future prosperity, leaders accepted the aid, however, were unable to develop and became ensnared in debt and exploited politically by U.S. powers.
If indebted countries are unable to pay and try to resist exploitation, then, according to Perkins, the jackals are sent in. The ‘jackals’ are CIA operatives whose mission is to depose a foreign leader, usually by assassination. Perkins sorrowfully tells the tale of Omar Torrijos, Panamanian leader from 1968 – 1981 and a personal acquaintance of Perkins. Torrijos was a man of the people who saw American involvement in Panama for what it was—economic exploitation. The Panama Canal is the biggest point of contention in the bilateral relationship. The U.S. defended Panamanian independence from Colombia in exchange for rights to the Canal in 1903. This led to American control of the Canal Zone, which was run operated like a ‘little America’ with English-speaking schools, post offices, etc. While relations were stable, they weren’t always copacetic, and a few rebellions and tensions spoiled the closeness. In 1977, in an unpopular political move, President Carter signed a treaty granting Panama full control of the Canal after 1999. Despite the deal, President Torrijos began negotiations with Japanese businesses to build a sea-level canal, which would compete with the U.S.. The author alleges that this action led to Torrijos’s assassination in 1981, when the President died in a plane crash (that Perkins suspects that the CIA planted with a bomb).
If you don’t believe that Torrijos was taken out by jackals then, perhaps, you would be interested in how Perkins explains CIA involvement in the coup d’etat against Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, the fatal revolt against the popular socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, and even the failed assassination against a Seychelles leader in 1981. According to Perkins, all of these violent interventions and more were done with an aim to safeguard interests of American business and the U.S. government.
The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man takes the reader on a journey from the author’s home state of New Hampshire in the 1960s, to Ecuador, Indonesia, Panama, Iran, and many other places in between. Even if you do not buy into all of the tales, it is interesting to hear how major political events are explained through the lens of an EHM.
The book comes to a close in the 2000’s. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the author left the EHM life and started to work for non-profits. Haunted by the acts he carried out to promote the ‘corporatocracy,’ Perkins embarked on a life that would make himself and his daughter proud. In a 180-degree turn, the author ends by urging the reader to live and work in a way that is sustainable and promotes peace. Perkins explains how the U.S. still uses economic tools to exploit, however, where there was once EHMs, today there are organizations like WalMart who exploit tax loopholes, Navy SEAL Team Six who are the modern CIA ‘jackals,’ and big business that deforests the Amazon jungle and forcibly removes native peoples from their lands.
It has been and still is a mad world, Dear Reader. Besides a fascinating story, from this book I learned the importance of pursuing work that is meaningful to you and realizing that even if you are not the one pulling the trigger, complacence of wrongdoing is wrong.
Perkins’s story is written in an engaging, powerful, and descriptive way—it’s better than fiction. This book was truly a wild ride. If you are even a little bit curious about anything mentioned above, just read it.