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Self-Described Economic Hit Man John Perkins: “We Have Created the World’s First Truly Global Empire”

StoryFebruary 15, 2006
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John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about his former work going into various countries to try to strongarm leaders into creating policy favorable to the U.S government and corporations. Perkins describes himself as an economic hit man. [includes rush transcript]

  • John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”, formerly worked for an international consulting firm and describes himself as an “economic hitman”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to someone on the inside who decided to speak out, and he is John Perkins, has written the book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. He came into our studios to talk about his former work, going into various countries to try to strong-arm leaders into creating policy favorable to the U.S. government and corporations, what he called the “corporatocracy.” John Perkins says he was an economic hit man. I began by asking him to explain this term.

JOHN PERKINS: We economic hit men, during the last 30 or 40 years, have really created the world’s first truly global empire, and we’ve done this primarily through economics, and the military only coming in as a last resort. Therefore, it’s been done pretty much secretly. Most of the people in the United States have no idea that we’ve created this empire and, in fact, throughout the world it’s been done very quietly, unlike old empires, where the army marched in; it was obvious. So I think the significance of the things you discussed, the fact that over 80% of the population of South America recently voted in an anti-U.S. president and what’s going on at the World Trade Organization, and also, in fact, with the transit strike here in New York, is that people are beginning to understand that the middle class and the lower classes around the world are being terribly, terribly exploited by what I call the corporatocracy, which really runs this empire.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we move further, your experience with it? Explain the vantage point you come from. What does it mean to be an economic hit man?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, what we’ve done — we use many techniques, but probably the most common is that we’ll go to a country that has resources that our corporations covet, like oil, and we’ll arrange a huge loan to that country from an organization like the World Bank or one of its sisters, but almost all of the money goes to the U.S. corporations, not to the country itself, corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton, General Motors, General Electric, these types of organizations, and they build huge infrastructure projects in that country: power plants, highways, ports, industrial parks, things that serve the very rich and seldom even reach the poor. In fact, the poor suffer, because the loans have to be repaid, and they’re huge loans, and the repayment of them means that the poor won’t get education, health, and other social services, and the country is left holding a huge debt, by intention. We go back, we economic hit men, to this country and say, “Look, you owe us a lot of money. You can’t repay your debts, so give us a pound of flesh. Sell our oil companies your oil real cheap or vote with us at the next U.N. vote or send troops in support of ours to some place in the world such as Iraq.” And in that way, we’ve managed to build a world empire with very few people actually knowing that we’ve done this.

AMY GOODMAN: And you worked for?

JOHN PERKINS: I was recruited by the National Security Agency, the one that’s in the news so much today because of spying on people, and I was tested by them, recruited by them —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean you were recruited by them?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, while I was a senior in business school at Boston University, they came to me and suggested that I take their test. I had connections through my wife with people in the agency, and they put me through a series of tests, personality tests, lie detector, several days, and concluded that I would make a good economic hit man, and they also discovered a number of weaknesses in my character, which they could use then to hook me into the business, and then I ended up working for a private corporation.

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t you work for the N.S.A.?

JOHN PERKINS: Because these days it’s not done that way. Nobody wants to be able to connect the dots. So the N.S.A., the C.I.A., these types of organizations often recruit economic hit men and the jackals, the assassins, the 007 types, but they will recruit us, maybe train us, and then turn us over to a private corporation, so that you really can’t make the connection, so that if I were caught at what I was doing in one of these countries, it would not reflect on our government; it would only reflect on the corporation that I worked for.

AMY GOODMAN: And who did you work for?

JOHN PERKINS: I worked for a company called Charles T. Main, a big consulting firm out of Boston.

AMY GOODMAN: And your job?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, I started off as economist, became chief economist, and my job really — I had a staff of several dozen people. My job was to get them, and for me to convince these countries to accept these very large loans, to get the banks to make the loans, to set up the deal so that the money went to big U.S. corporations. The country was left holding a huge debt, and then I would go in or one of my people would go in and say, “Look, you know, you owe us all this money. You can’t pay your debts. Give us that pound of flesh.”

The other thing we do, Amy, and what’s going on right now in Latin America is that as soon as one of these anti-American presidents is elected, such as Evo Morales, who you mentioned, in Bolivia, one of us goes in and says, “Hey, congratulations, Mr. President. Now that you’re president, I just want to tell you that I can make you very, very rich, you and your family. We have several hundred million dollars in this pocket if you play the game our way. If you decide not to, over in this pocket, I’ve got a gun with a bullet with your name on it, in case you decide to keep your campaign promises and throw us out.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain actually how that plays out, because it’s not really in this pocket and that.

JOHN PERKINS: No, it’s — what I’m saying is that, you know, I can make sure that this man makes a great deal of money, he and his family, through contracts, through various quasi-legal means, and I can also — if he doesn’t accept this, you know, the same thing is going to happen to him that happened to Jaime Roldos in Ecuador and Omar Torrijos in Panama and Allende in Chile, and we tried to do it to Chavez in Venezuela and are still trying — that we will send in the people to try to overthrow him, as, in fact, we recently did with the President of Ecuador, or if we don’t overthrow him, we’ll assassinate him. And these people all know the history. They know that this has happened many, many, many times in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to Torrijos, for example, in Panama, and what did you have to do with it?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, this was back in the '70s, and Torrijos was making a lot of world headlines, because he was demanding that the Panama Canal be turned back over to Panamanians. I was sent down to Panama to bring him around, to convince him that he needed to play the game our way. And he invited me to a little bungalow outside of Panama City, and he said, “Look, you know, I know the game, and if I play it your way, I'll become very rich, but that’s not important to me. What is important is that I help my poor people.” Now, Torrijos wasn’t an angel, but he was very committed to his poor people. So he said, “You can either play the game my way, or you can leave this country.”

And I talked to my bosses, and we all decided I should stay. Maybe I could bring him around. In the meantime, we could make some money, and so I stayed. But I knew the whole world was watching Torrijos because of this Panama Canal issue and that if he didn’t come around, the jackals would be likely to come in. [inaudible] A man like Torrijos [inaudible] not only would we lose Panama, but he would set an example that others might follow. So I was very concerned. I liked Torrijos, and one of the reasons I wanted to bring him around was not just because it was my job, but because I wanted to see him survive, and because he didn’t come around, sure enough, he was assassinated.


JOHN PERKINS: Fiery airplane crash, and afterwards, there was no question that — he had been handed a tape recorder as he got on the plane that had a bomb in it.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know this?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, I know the people that did the investigation afterwards, and this is pretty well-documented in many places also, but I, personally, was aware of what went on, and, of course, you know, our official line here was that, of course, that wasn’t what happened. The plane simply blew up and hit a mountain. But there was no question, and in fact we were expecting this to happen.

Three months before this, another president, Jaime Roldos of Ecuador, who I also was involved in trying to bring around, he very strongly opposed our oil companies. Not “oppose,” isn’t the right word. What he said is, “Oil from Ecuador has to serve the interest of the Ecuadorian people. Therefore, the oil companies are going to have to pay a lot greater share to the Ecuadorian people or we’re going to nationalize them.” And he’d run on a very, very strong anti-American campaign, and we knew that if he didn’t change his ways, that something would happen to him. We were in his office making the same promises. You know, here we’ve got a couple of million dollars for you. Here we’ve got a bullet for you, basically. It’s done a lot more subtly than that, but that’s the short version. And three months before Torrijos, his airplane also exploded.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did the investigation reveal in that case?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, if you’re talking about F.B.I. investigations, it revealed that there was an airplane that exploded in both cases. If you’re talking about local investigations and investigations that were done by many international journalists, there were explosives on those planes, both of them. And, you know, it’s relatively easy to get to assassinate one of these presidents who has a security force that’s well armed, that surrounds him all the time, and in the case of both Roldos and Torrijos, those security forces had been trained primarily at the School of the Americas, a U.S. training camp for South American armies. It’s well known that when —

AMY GOODMAN: Which used to be in Panama, actually?

JOHN PERKINS: Used to be in Panama, right, and it’s well known that people that are trained this way stay pretty loyal to their trainers. And they didn’t make a lot of money, and so if one of their trainers went back and said, “Hey, would you mind handing this tape recorder to Jaime Roldos?” And the security guy may very well know that there’s a bomb in it, and I’m going to pay you several hundred thousand dollars or maybe in this case it’s only $100,000, because these guys were not very well paid, or, “simply look the other way while we plant something on the plane.”

That’s an easy thing to do, and incidentally, we also tried to do that to Saddam Hussein. When he didn’t come around, the economic hit men tried to bring him around. We tried to assassinate him. But that was an interesting point, because he had pretty loyal security forces, and in addition he had a lot of look-alike doubles, and what you don’t want to be is a bodyguard to a look-alike double and you think it’s the president and you accept a lot of money to assassinate him and you assassinate the look-alike, because if you do that, afterwards your life and your family’s isn’t worth very much, so we were unable to get through to Saddam Hussein, and that’s why we sent the military in.

AMY GOODMAN: Although Saddam Hussein was in the pocket of the U.S. for many, many years.

JOHN PERKINS: He was and — but we wanted that final deal, similar to the one we’d struck with Saudi Arabia. We wanted to get Saddam Hussein to really tie in to our system, and he refused to do that. He accepted our fighter jets and our tanks and our chemical plants that he used to produce chemical weapons that we knew were being used against the Kurds and the Iranians. He accepted all that, but he wouldn’t quite tie into our system in such a big way that he would bring in the huge development organizations to rebuild his country, as the Saudis did, in a Western image. And that’s what we were trying to convince him to do and also to guarantee that he would always trade oil for U.S. dollars, instead of Euros, and that he would keep the price of oil within limits acceptable to us. He would not go along with those things. If he had, he would still be president, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: As a consultant, you did work in Saudi Arabia, John Perkins?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, yes, in fact I put — I was one of the ones responsible for putting together the main deal there in the early '70s. As you may recall, Amy, OPEC decided that they were going to clamp down on us, shut off our oil supplies. They didn't like our policies towards Israel, and so in the early '70s, the supply of oil was cut way back in this country. We had long lines of cars at the gas stations, and we were afraid we were going to go to another depression like the one that started in 1929, so the Treasury Department came to me and some other economic hit men and said, “Look, this is unacceptable.” And I give all the details of this in the book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, but the short version is, they said, “Make sure that this doesn't happen again,” and we knew that the key to stopping this sort of thing was Saudi Arabia, because it controlled more oil than anyone else and the Royal House of Saud was corruptible.

So again, the short version is we put together a deal whereby the House of Saud agreed to send almost all of the money it made from selling oil all over the world back to the U.S., invest it in U.S. government securities, the interest from those securities was used by the Treasury Department to hire U.S. companies to rebuild Saudi Arabia, power plants, desalinization plants, in fact, entire cities from the desert, and in the process, to westernize Saudi Arabia, to make it more like us. And the other part of the deal was the House of Saud agreed to keep the price of oil within limits acceptable to us, and we agreed to keep the House of Saud in power, and that deal still holds. It’s been holding for a long time. There’s a lot of blowback right now that’s occurring around it, but from our standpoint as economic hit men, it was an extremely successful deal, and it’s the one we tried to replicate with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. We’ll continue with our conversation in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. I asked him if he was the first person to coin the term “economic hit man.”

JOHN PERKINS: I think I may have been the first to use it in print, but we used it back in the '70s. We called ourselves — and it was sort of a tongue-in-cheek term. Officially, I was chief economist, but we used that sort of tongue-in-cheek, because it described was we did. Since the book came out on hardback — yes, and there's a new epilogue in the paperback, which covers a lot of the new material — a lot of people have stepped out of the shadows and approached me and talked to me, high people in governments and other economic hit men and jackals and wanted to share their story. A lot of them want to do it anonymously, which is a little tricky for a writer these days, as you know, but it’s been fascinating to me how many have stepped out.

I also have seen, Amy, I think, a tremendous change in attitude around the world. We’re seeing people really rebelling and saying, you know, we understand what’s going on. And to be honest with you, I attribute a great deal of that to your show and other shows like it. You’re reaching people. The internet, for example, is working wonders. And there’s a lot of books, there’s a lot of movies like Syriana and Hotel Rwanda and Good Night, and Good Luck and so on and so forth. So, the information is getting out. And I think once Americans understand what we’re doing in the world and how much hatred this is generating, we will demand change. And I think history has proven that when we demand change in any area, eventually — it takes a little time — but we do get it. So I’m very hopeful.

AMY GOODMAN: And these people who have come forward, are they active today?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, yes, very much so. One of them — you know, there was a president elected, the President of Ecuador, Gutierrez, a few years ago and he ran on a very, very strong anti-U.S. ticket. And he said that if he was elected, he would make sure that the people of Ecuador get the fair proceeds from Ecuadorian oil. As soon as he was elected, he was visited by an economic hit man, whom I know personally, and read the Riot Act, told the things we mentioned earlier, you know, “I’ve got money for you or a bullet.”

Within a month, he came to Washington. There was a famous picture shown all over Ecuador of him sitting, holding hands with George Bush. And very soon after that, he went against everything in his campaign promises. He cut sweet deals with the oil companies. He went back on the indigenous peoples, whose lands in the Amazon area he had promised to protect. And the Ecuadorian people went wild. They took to the streets. They protested and demonstrated and eventually threw him out of power.

So this particular one backfired. But what — the economic hit man did his job right. Gutierrez came around, and then the Ecuadorian people understood what was going on. I have good friends in Ecuador who called me shortly after that and said, “You know, when we elect someone democratically to do something and he doesn’t do it, democracy requires that we throw him out. Why don’t you the same thing in your country?”

AMY GOODMAN: John Perkins, what about Evo Morales? You talk about Gutierrez.

JOHN PERKINS: Yeah, I spent a lot of time in Bolivia. In fact, at one time, I was offered the job as president of Bolivian Power Company, which is the second most important job in Bolivia, actually, behind the President. And Bolivia has this — and it was an American-owned company, incidentally. Bolivia has this long record of giving into the I.M.F. and the World Bank, privatizing their resources, like their power company and their water company. And the people of Bolivia were fed up with this. They had been exploited and exploited and exploited. And so Evo Morales ran on this ticket that said, “I’m not going to put up with this anymore.” And, of course, he’s getting a bad name in the U.S., because we want to portray him as a cocaine-raising farmer who’s all in favor of Castro and socialism and communism and cocaine. The fact is he did raise coca. He was a coca farmer. Coca’s a very legitimate product in Bolivia that is not just used for cocaine. It’s used for many other things.


JOHN PERKINS: Well, for example, high altitude sickness. Coca tea is perfectly legal in this country, too, and it’s very effective against high altitude sickness, and derivatives of coca are used for many medicines. They’re very effective. But the reason he was elected had nothing to do with any of that. It simply has to do with the extreme frustration and anger of the Bolivian people, of how they’ve been exploited and how the I.M.F. and the World Bank have insisted that they turn their resources over to foreign corporations. And also, you know, part of the World Trade Organization policies is that we insist that countries like Bolivia not subsidize their local industries and products, but that they accept our subsidies of them, and that they not erect any barriers against our goods coming in there, but they accept the barriers that we erect against their goods. And people around the world, Amy, are getting fed up with this. 300 million Latin Americans — South Americans out of 360 million, over 80% have voted for these types of candidates.

AMY GOODMAN: Not to be ethnocentric about it, but America is a tremendous power, especially military power. It has been diverted now to dealing with Iraq. President Bush declaring war on Iraq, not exactly officially declaring it, but engaging in it. Do you think that that has something to do with what is happening in Latin America, not to take power away from the people and what they are doing there?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, certainly, I think that Hugo Chavez of Venezuela might not have survived his presidency. His presidency might not have survived had we not been in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we were so diverted. We — the economic hit men tried to overthrow him, you know, a few years ago and were successful for about 48 hours. But then he had control over the oil company, and he was very, very popular. So he got back into office. At that point, had we not been involved in Iraq, I strongly suspect that we would have done something much more aggressive, as we’ve done so many other times. When the economic hit men fail, we take more drastic steps. Because we were so involved in Iraq, we didn’t do that.

This gave great support to all of the other movements in Latin America. And these other candidates, people like Evo Morales, really looked to Hugo Chavez as an example of someone who’s had the staying power. He’s been able to stay there, despite the fact that the administration has spoken so strongly against him and is so angry.

The other side of the coin is that Brazil is a world power. It’s one of the largest economies in the world, and it produces a tremendous number of military weapons that are used worldwide. And Lula, of Brazil, he’s backed off a bit. And there’s an interesting story that I know behind that.


JOHN PERKINS: Well, I’ll get into that. But he’s backed off a bit. But he still — he’s made alliances with Chavez, with Kirchner of Argentina, with Morales of Bolivia. They’ve all agreed that if the United States does anything drastic, they’ll stand together and oppose us. So there is this coalition that’s happening. It’s quite loose. But nonetheless, there’s a tremendous amount of support there.

AMY GOODMAN: Lula, what do you know?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, I was one of the speakers at the World Social Forum in Brazil in last February, and a man asked to meet with me who was a very high advisor to Lula. And he said, “You know, what you say in your book is all very true, but you just — that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” He said, “You know, from the time I was a very young man, I was quite radical. And it was interesting to me, as I was going through university, how much sex, drugs, booze were available to me in the parties that I was invited to, and so on. And now that I’m in this position of power, I discover that somebody was taking pictures of all those things, that there’s a record of this.”

And he says, “You don’t realize how all-pervasive your Secret Services are. It’s recruiting, in their own way, young people, even those that are extreme socialists and communists. Your people befriend us from very early ages and get a lot of information on us. So when we become high up in the government, they basically — ” And I said, “They blackmail you?” And he said, “Well, you could use the word 'blackmail,' but I think I would prefer that’s 'modern U.S. diplomacy.'”

And I asked him, I said, “Well, is Lula a part of this?” And he obviously didn’t really want to answer this question. He hesitated, and he said, “Let me just say that nobody gets to power in Brazil these days without being very willing to make compromises to your corporations and your government.” He said, “I think Lula’s a very, very good man, but he also has to deal with reality. And certainly, he’s been watched all of his life, and I’m sure he’s had the same temptations I did.”

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s also engulfed in a major corruption scandal, which, for many of his long-time supporters, Brazilians and outside, are raising a lot of questions.

JOHN PERKINS: And I think the fact that the scandal has come out and has been blown into such proportions is an indication that someone is sending Lula a very strong message. Incidentally, the jackal — I’ll call him — that was working with Gutierrez of Ecuador said to me, “You know, this isn’t limited to other countries. This happens in your country, too. Don’t you think that the assassination of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and John Lennon and others like that, and the many senators that have died in airplane crashes and other things, has sent a strong message to your politicians? And don’t you think that — ”

AMY GOODMAN: Who said this to you?

JOHN PERKINS: The same economic hit man/jackal who visited Gutierrez and read him the Riot Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you care to share his name?

JOHN PERKINS: No. I’ll let him do that at some point, if he feels it’s appropriate. Right now, he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate. He’s still in the business. And so, many of these people are still very — even the ones that have retired are getting pensions, and they’ve got loyalties, some of them. So, they’ll talk to me on the side and say, “I want you to put this in your book, but I’m not ready to talk.” A couple of them I am working with to write a book, and my literary agent is working with them. So hopefully some of them will come clean. But it’s a slow process in making that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And these people you know, who you call economic hit men, who are the first to move in to these men who gain power, where does — what do you know about Evo Morales now? He’s just been elected President?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, I have no doubt that he has been visited by at least one of these men, who’s known him beforehand. These are not strangers that walk in. They’ve been hanging around Bolivia for a while, as I did. And so, once the President is elected, they walk into his office and shake his hands and say, “Congratulations, Mr. President. You won. We launched a strong campaign against you, but now you’ve won. And now, I want to tell you the facts of life and make you —”

AMY GOODMAN: And you know someone who has talked to him in this way?


AMY GOODMAN: And what was — according to you, what was President Morales’s response?

JOHN PERKINS: Morales was very diplomatic about the whole thing, but absolutely stood firm and said, “You know, my people have elected me for a reason, and I intend to honor that.” This is what his initial response was. But what I will say is we can’t imagine the pressure now that’s being exerted on a man like Morales, as is true with all these other presidents. They know what’s happened before their time. And they — you know, the pressure will be put on them tighter and tighter and tighter.

And imagine being in that position. Imagine being an integritous person and really wanting to help your country, being elected with a majority — Morales got 54% of the vote, which is unheard of in Bolivia; he was up against many opponents — and then, wanting to implement the policy, and somebody walks into your office and reminds you of what happened to all these other presidents.

And perhaps the most scary one was Noriega, who did not get assassinated. He wasn’t a martyr. Instead, he had to stand by and watch several thousand innocent Panamanian civilians bombed, slaughtered, burned to death. And then he was dragged off to a U.S. prison, where he has been pretty much in solitary confinement every since. Imagine thinking that might happen to you.

And so, Evo Morales, the story has just begun for him. I sympathize with him very deeply. And I think from our standpoint, Amy, as American citizens — and I look at myself as an extremely loyal American citizen. I believe in the principles of this country, which I think that in the past few decades, increasingly, we’ve put them way in the back burner. But as good Americans, we need to insist that our government and our corporations honor democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

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