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“Economic Hit Man” John Perkins Recounts US Efforts to Block Nationalization of Panama Canal

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Panamanian President Martin Torrijos was in Washington earlier this week to discuss a pending free trade agreement with the United States, where he drew praise from President Bush on winning national approval for the $5.2 billion expansion plan for the Panama Canal. But three decades ago the moves to nationalize the Panama Canal by President Torrijos’s father, General Omar Torrijos, met with enormous resistance in this country. [includes rush transcript]

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


The Panamanian president, Martin Torrijos, was in Washington earlier this week to discuss a pending free trade agreement with the United States. President Bush told reporters Tuesday that securing the agreement with Panama, as well as Colombia and South Korea, was “a priority of this government and should be a priority of the United States Congress.” He congratulated Torrijos on winning national approval for the $5.2 billion expansion plan for the Panama Canal and added, “Panama is an important friend and ally of the United States.”

But three decades ago, the moves to nationalize the Panama Canal by President Torrijos’s father, General Omar Torrijos, met with enormous resistance in this country. Here, Ronald Reagan denounces Torrijos on national television in 1976 as part of his campaign for the Republican nomination.

    GOV. RONALD REAGAN: Torrijos is a friend and ally of Castro and, like him, is pro-Communist. He threatens sabotage and guerrilla attacks on our installations if we don’t yield to his demands. Well, the Canal Zone is not a colonial possession. It is not a long-term lease. It is sovereign United States territory, every bit the same as Alaska and all the states that were carved from the Louisiana Purchase. We should end those negotiations and tell the General: we bought it, we paid for it, we build it, and we intend to keep it.


In 1977, under the Carter administration, General Torrijos succeeded in negotiating the treaties that would eventually give his country full sovereignty over the Panama Canal on December 31, 1999. But General Torrijos did not live to see this transfer of power. He died August 1, 1981 in a plane crash.

I’m joined right now by a man who spent a great deal of his time in the late ’70s with General Torrijos. He was trying in vain to convince Torrijos to acquiesce to American corporate plans for the Panamanian economy. He calls himself a former “economic hit man.” John Perkins is the bestselling author of, yes, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and his latest book, now out in paperback, The Secret History of the American Empire.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is dedicated to General Torrijos, as well as the former president of Ecuador, Jaime Roldos, both of whom died in plane crashes within three months of each other. Perkins writes, “Their deaths were not accidental. They were assassinated because they opposed that fraternity of corporate, government, and banking heads whose goal is global empire.”

John Perkins, with us in our firehouse studio, welcome.


Thanks, Amy. It’s good to be here again.


Your thoughts, as Torrijos’s son is now meeting with President Bush?


Well, Torrijos’s son is very, very different from his father and is really — you know, follows this long line of destruction in Panama. So not only did we assassinate his father, Omar Torrijos, but later we went in and took out Noriega, killed maybe two to — at least 2,000, maybe 6,000, innocent Panamanians, bombed the country. And after that, any president that came along, no matter what his true belief system was, would know that he was a target that the United States was watching very closely.

I think what’s really fascinating right now, Amy, is that throughout Latin America, we now have nine countries in Latin America that have voted in the president that said no more exploitation by the United States or by foreign corporations. This represents more than 80 percent of the population of South America.

And Martin Torrijos, Omar’s son, the current president, is caught in this very difficult position, where he’s trying to get along with the United States, and yet he’s in a country that has this history of repercussions against it — his father assassinated, another president taken out, still in a US prison. And so, I think he’s trying very hard to work out some sort of a compromise, where he can coexist with the United States. He’s not taking the same strong stance that these other nine presidents are taking. On the other hand, he is not totally giving in to the United States the way Uribe of Colombia, for example, has.

Something very, very significant is going on in Latin America today, and unfortunately not too many people are talking about it, except you.


Well, I want to play a clip from this new docudrama that’s based on your life and story. It’s called Apology of an Economic Hit Man. This is a clip of Marta Roldos, the daughter of the former Ecuadorian president, Jaime Roldos. She’s talking about how the death of her father was investigated.

    MARTA ROLDOS: [translated] There was great rush from the government that took over to close the case. The investigation that took place only lasted a week. One week. In one week’s time, they had released a report saying it had been an accident. In reality, this was a joke. It was a joke. For me, there has always been a doubt. I want to know what really happened.


Former Ecuadorian President Jaime Roldos died on May 24, 1981. Less than three months later, the leader of Panama, General Omar Torrijos, also died in a plane crash. This is a clip, also from the docudrama Apology of an Economic Hit Man, with Marta Roldos discussing Torrijos.

    MARTA ROLDOS: [translated] I believe he was worried. My father’s death troubled him very much. According to his family, Torrijos said, “If they come to kill me, don’t interfere. Don’t risk your lives.”


John Perkins, your response?


Well, there’s no question in my mind that both Jaime Roldos and Omar Torrijos were assassinated by CIA-sponsored jackals. When we economic hit men failed to bring these people around, to corrupt these presidents, we knew that standing in the shadows were the jackals. And they either overthrew governments or assassinated leaders. And so, although it was deeply, deeply disturbing to me, I was not terribly surprised when this happened.

I liked both of these men tremendously. I knew Torrijos especially well and was a great admirer of his. And I was caught in this very, very difficult situation, because my job was to corrupt him, and I really respected the fact that he wouldn’t be corrupted. It gave me great hope. In fact, it changed my life. It got me out of being an economic hit man. On the other hand, I knew that if I wasn’t able to corrupt him, something dire was likely to happen.


Now, let’s go back. You explain economic hit men and who you were working for.


Well, really, we economic hit men have managed to create the world’s first truly global empire, I think. And we worked primarily to get US corporations big jobs in other countries. We identified third world countries that have resources our corporations covet, like oil, or in this case — in Ecuador it was oil, in Panama it was the canal. And then we arranged huge loans for that country from the World Bank or one of its sisters.

But the money doesn’t go to the country. Instead, it goes to our own corporations to build projects in that country, like power plants and industrial parks and highways, that benefit a few rich people, in addition to our corporations, but don’t help the majority of the people who are too poor to buy electricity or don’t have the skills to get jobs in industrial parks.

But the country is left holding a huge debt that it can’t possibly repay. So, at some point, we go back and say, “Listen, you know, you can’t pay our debt, so go along with us. Sell your oil real cheap to our oil companies. Let us stay with the canal. Let us build a military base in Ecuador,” as we’ve done in Manta, Ecuador. And in that way, we’ve really managed to bring these countries around to our side to create this empire.

When we fail, which doesn’t happen too often — but that’s what happened in Ecuador with Roldos and in Panama with Torrijos — then the jackals step in and either overthrow the governments or assassinate the leaders. If the jackals also fail — that’s what happened with Saddam Hussein in Iraq — then and only then does the military go in.


Just before Raul Reyes was killed, the commander of FARC — Colombian military went into Ecuador and killed him and a number of other people — you received an email. What did it say, from Reyes?


I did. I received a long email from Reyes applauding me for the book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, saying I had told the story very accurately and that he had documents that he wanted to share with me. And in fact, it was on a peace mission, when he went into Ecuador on a mission to exchange hostages and try to strike a peace deal.

Now, I’m not trying to portray FARC as a great organization. They’re murderers. They’re killers. They’re a very dangerous organization. But the fact is that they were trying to negotiate a peace settlement.

And Colombia really doesn’t want a peace settlement. Uribe, the president of Colombia, at least, doesn’t, because he receives so much military aid from the United States and so much protection for the oil fields that he really doesn’t want peace.

So, what Reyes was saying before he was assassinated was that they were trying to keep him from striking a peace deal. And the fact that Colombia sent these troops in illegally and killed twenty — more than twenty FARC representatives in Ecuador, I think, substantiates what Reyes was telling me.


This is Raul Reyes, the slain FARC commander. He was speaking in 1996.

    RAUL REYES: [translated] For peace, there has to be a policy that comes from the state. That means there has to be guarantees for the insurgency to sit with the government and to discuss about the new Colombia we should all construct. Right now, there are no guarantees. Right now, continued threats against the leaders of the guerrilla movements, the proliferation of murderers and massacres, continues.


The FARC commander who was just recently killed when Colombia raided Ecuador, got him, killed him, at a FARC camp. That interview was done by WBAI’s Mario Murillo. John Perkins?


Well, you know, it’s exactly as he was saying to me. They were trying to strike a peace deal, but there has to be a two-way street here. And Colombia is a standout nation in Latin America now that is not going along with all the other countries who are trying to really raise nationalism.

I think there’s an amazing revolution going on in Latin America. In the last — in this decade, nine countries, representing more than 80 percent of the population, have democratically and peacefully voted in presidents who say, “We don’t want any more war. We don’t want any more terrorism. We don’t want any more exploitation by foreign corporations.” They’re saying, “We don’t want foreign aid. We simply want to have the right to use our resources to help our people.”

And these are countries, Amy, every one of them, that during most of my lifetime were run by brutal dictators who were US puppets. And now, all that’s changed in the last — less than ten years. And I think there’s tremendous hope there. I think this gives hope for all of us here in the United States, for people in Africa, in the Middle East, that diverse groups can come together and do what’s right democratically and peacefully.


Do you think Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Correa of Ecuador have reason to fear, well, who you call the jackals?


Absolutely. They do have reason to fear, and I know they’re taking protection. I have spoken with Correa. He’s exchanged letters with me. I was with Evo Morales on New Year’s Eve a year ago. Chavez has talked openly about this. I was just in Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega feels this way. They’re taking steps, and probably most importantly is that they’re banding together. There’s so many of them now, it would be hard for the United States to send in enough jackals, you know, without raising a lot of world concern. However, you reported on this program — I think it was yesterday — that the Fourth Fleet has been taken out of mothballs. The US naval fleet that goes into the Caribbean and South America that’s been in mothballs since 1950 is being called out.


John Perkins, we have to leave it there, author of The Secret History of the American Empire.

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