In 1946, when I was a year old, my father hung up his Navy uniform and joined the U.S. Foreign Service. He could have returned to a well-paid position at Borden Cheese, but he wanted to continue serving his country after World War II. First we went to Bucharest Romania (’47-49), then Paris (’49-52), then Sydney Australia (’53-56), then Bangkok Thailand (’56-58), with in between stays in Washington D.C. While I was in college, my dad served as chief economic officer in Belgrade Yugoslavia (’62-65). He then worked for the State Department until his retirement in 1970; his job included speaking on college campuses to defend the war in Vietnam. If he was disillusioned, he never openly let on—though he did mutter about how anti-Communist “know-nothings” in Congress made his job harder in Yugoslavia. Years later he commented on Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada (remember that, anyone?), “They must have found a couple of Communists under a bed.”
On reading John Perkins’ New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, I kept thinking what stories my father could have told. Perkins began in 1971 as an economic consultant— “economic hit man”— with the engineering firm, MAIN, travelling to Indonesia, Panama, Colombia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. His job was to convince leaders to undertake wildly overambitious infrastructure projects that would enrich them and big U.S. engineering firms like Bechtel. In most cases, the projects would fail and leave nations beholden to US banks or the World Bank. Saudi Arabia was a special case; the flood of dollars from the new OPEC cartel would purchase both sophisticated infrastructure like desalinization plants and U.S. military protection against insurgents. Leaders who refused to cooperate with such plans would be picked off by CIA-supported “jackals”. Thus the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran (1953); the Jacobo Árbenz coup in Guatemala (1954); the Salvador Allende coup and murder in Chile (1973); the mysterious airplane explosions that killed Jaime Roldós in Ecuador and Omar Torrijos in Panama (1981); the overthrow and murder of Maurice Bishop in Grenada (1983); the bloody invasion and capture of Manuel Noriega in Panama (1989). Somehow Fidel Castro in Cuba successfully dodged dozens of assassination attempts.
The economic hit man/ jackal strategy of debt and fear was a deliberate US policy to counter influence of the Soviet Union. Perkins relates a story from a 1975 dam-building project he directed in Colombia. Guerillas confronted a Colombian engineer at the dam site, firing AK-47s into the air and at his feet, and handing him a letter. The letter read: “We, who work every day just to survive, swear on the blood of our ancestors that we will never allow dams across our rivers. We are simple Indians and mestizos, but we would rather die than stand by as our land is flooded. We warn our Colombian brothers: stop working for the construction companies.” Perkins lectured the terrified engineer; did that sound like a letter a farmer would write? He slammed his fist on the desk; did farmers with AK-47s make sense? And who invented the AK-47?
In a fit of conscience, Perkins quit MAIN in 1980. But he continued as an energy entrepreneur and consultant for another twenty years, while becoming increasingly involved in projects to help embattled natives in the Amazon. In 2005 he published Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, an immediate bestseller. In the new updated version, he focuses on how the debt-and-fear strategy is now at work all over the world, in developed as well as less-developed countries. For example, many local governments in the US have been suckered into building public-private toll roads (see here and here and here), all of which eventually failed, sticking the governments with poorly constructed roads and piles of debt.
My father died in 2008, sharp to the end. What did he know and live with? I once asked him did he know how the CIA collaborated with drug traffickers in Thailand and Central America. “Of course!”, he said, “You can’t be choosy about your friends in a dirty business.” In retirement he called the Vietnam war a terrible mistake, but did he consider resigning when the students booed his pro-war speeches? I never thought to ask him about U.S. support for right-wing ethnic nationalists in former Yugoslavia, surely a major factor in the break-up and civil wars starting 1991. I wonder what he would think of Venezuela today. Despite the country’s vast oil reserves, the socialist government established by Hugo Chávez seems to be collapsing, surely heading for a right-wing coup. Are the food riots and blackouts just due to mismanagement and the drop in oil prices, or have the jackals arrived to look for communists under beds?