Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is a semi-autobiographical book written by John Perkins and first published in 2004 about his role in helping expand the US global empire, by mercilessly exploiting less developed countries.

John Perkins at the 2010 Chicago Green Festival



Full text online in multiple formats


  • Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign “aid” organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s natural resources. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as empire, but one that has taken on new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization. I should know; I was an EHM. (Preface)
  • This is not fiction. It is the true story of my life. A more courageous publisher, one not owned by an international corporation, has agreed to help me tell it. This story must be told. We live in a time of terrible crisis — and tremendous opportunity. The story of this particular economic hit man is the story of how we got to where we are and why we currently face crises that seem insurmountable.
  • This story must be told because only by understanding our past mistakes will we be able to take advantage of future opportunities; because 9/11 happened and so did the second war in Iraq; because in addition to the three thousand people who died on September 11, 2001, at the hands of terrorists, another twenty-four thousand died from hunger and related causes. In fact, twenty-four thousand people die every single day because they are unable to obtain life sustaining food... For the first time in history, one nation has the ability, the money, and the power to change all this. It is the nation where I was born and the one I served as an EHM: the United States of America.
  • It is my personal story, and yet it happened within the larger context of world events that have shaped our history, have brought us to where we are today, and form the foundation of our children's futures. Whenever I discuss historical events or re-create conversations with other people, I do so with the help of several tools: published documents; personal records and notes; recollections — my own and those of others who participated... and historical accounts by other authors, most notably recently published ones that disclose information that formerly was classified or otherwise unavailable. References are provided in the end notes, to allow interested readers to pursue these subjects in more depth.
  • On the day in 1971 when I began working with my teacher Claudine, she informed me, "My assignment is to mold you into an economic hit man. No one can know about your involvement — not even your wife." Then she turned serious. "Once you're in, you're in for life." My job, she said, was "to encourage world leaders to become part of a vast network that promotes U.S. commercial interests. In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire — to satisfy our political, economic, or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of U.S. engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy."
  • Today we see the results of this system run amok. Executives at our most respected companies hire people at near-slave wages to toil under inhuman conditions in Asian sweatshops. Oil companies wantonly pump toxins into rain forest rivers, consciously killing people, animals, and plants, and committing genocide among ancient cultures. The pharmaceutical industry denies lifesaving medicines to millions of HIV-infected Africans... Twelve million families in our own United States worry about their next meal... The United States spends over $87 billion conducting a war in Iraq while the United Nations estimates that for less than half that amount we could provide clean water, adequate diets, sanitation services, and basic education to every person on the planet.
  • Some would blame our current problems on an organized conspiracy. I wish it were so simple. Members of a conspiracy can be rooted out and brought to justice. This system, however, is fueled by something far more dangerous than conspiracy. It is driven not by a small band of men but by a concept that has become accepted as gospel: the idea that all economic growth benefits humankind and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. This belief also has a corollary: that those people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation....
  • We know that in many countries economic growth benefits only a small portion of the population and may in fact result in increasingly desperate circumstances for the majority.
  • When men and women are rewarded for greed, greed becomes a corrupting motivator. When we equate the gluttonous consumption of the earth's resources with a status approaching sainthood, when we teach our children to emulate people who live unbalanced lives, and when we define huge sections of the population as subservient to an elite minority, we ask for trouble.
  • In their drive to advance the global empire, corporations, banks, and governments (collectively the corporatocracy) use their financial and political muscle to ensure that our schools, businesses, and media support both the fallacious concept and its corollary.
  • They have brought us to a point where our global culture is a monstrous machine that requires exponentially increasing amounts of fuel and maintenance, so much so that in the end it will have consumed everything in sight and will be left with no choice but to devour itself.
  • The corporatocracy is not a conspiracy, but its members do endorse common values and goals. One of corporatocracy's most important functions is to perpetuate and continually expand and strengthen the system.
  • People like me are paid outrageously high salaries to do the system's bidding. If we falter, a more malicious form of hit man, the jackal, steps to the plate. And if the jackal fails, then the job falls to the military.
  • History tells us that unless we modify this story, it is guaranteed to end tragically. Empires never last. Everyone of them has failed terribly. They destroy many cultures as they race toward greater domination, and then they themselves fall. No country or combination of countries can thrive in the long term by exploiting others.
  • This book was written so that we may take heed and remold our story. I am certain that when enough of us become aware of how we are being exploited by the economic engine that creates an insatiable appetite for the world's resources, and results in systems that foster slavery, we will no longer tolerate it.
  • We will reassess our role in a world where a few swim in riches and the majority drown in poverty, pollution, and violence. We will commit ourselves to navigating a course toward compassion, democracy, and social justice for all.
  • Admitting to a problem is the first step toward finding a solution.
  • Confessing a sin is the beginning of redemption.


  • If an EHM is completely successful, the loans are so large that the debtor is forced to default on its payments after a few years. When this happens, then like the Mafia we demand our pound of flesh. This often includes one or more of the following: control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases, or access to precious resources such as oil or the Panama Canal. Of course, the debtor still owes us the money— and another country is added to our global empire.
  • Driving from Quito toward Shell on this sunny day in 2003, I thought back thirty-five years to the first time I arrived in this part of the world... I found it fascinating and certainly exotic; yet, the words that kept coming to mind back then were pure, untouched, and innocent. Much has changed in thirty-five years... A trans-Andean pipeline built shortly after my first visit has since leaked over a half million barrels of oil into the fragile rain forest— more than twice the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Today, a new $1.3 billion, three hundred-mile pipeline constructed by an EHM organized consortium promises to make Ecuador one of the world's top ten suppliers of oil to the United States. Vast areas of rain forest have fallen, macaws and jaguars have all but vanished, three Ecuadorian indigenous cultures have been driven to the verge of collapse, and pristine rivers have been transformed into flaming cesspools.
  • Because of my fellow EHMs and me, Ecuador is in far worse shape today than she was before we introduced her to the miracles of modern economics, banking, and engineering. Since 1970, during this period known euphemistically as the Oil Boom, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, under- or unemployment increased from 15 to 70 percent, and public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion. Meanwhile, the share of national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20 to 6 percent.
  • Unfortunately, Ecuador is not the exception. Nearly every country we EHMs have brought under the global empire's umbrella has suffered a similar fate. Third world debt has grown to more than 62.5 trillion, and the cost of servicing it — over $375 billion per year as of 2004 — is more than all third world spending on health and education, and twenty times what developing countries receive annually in foreign aid.
  • Over half the people in the world survive on less than two dollars per day... roughly the same amount they received in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent of third world households accounts for 70 to 90 percent of all private financial wealth and real estate ownership in their country.
  • Ecuador is typical of countries around the world that EHMs have brought into the economic-political fold. For every $100 of crude taken out of the Ecuadorian rain forests, the oil companies receive $75. Of the remaining $25, three-quarters must go to paying off the foreign debt. Most of the remainder covers military and other government expenses — which leaves about $2.50 for health, education, and programs aimed at helping the poor. Thus, out of every $100 worth of oil torn from the Amazon, less than $3 goes to the people who need the money most, those whose lives have been so adversely impacted by the dams, the drilling, and the pipelines, and who are dying from lack of edible food and potable water.
  • The subtlety of this modern empire building puts the Roman centurions, the Spanish conquistadors, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European colonial powers to shame. We EHMs are crafty; we learned from history. Today we do not carry swords. We do not wear armor or clothes that set us apart... we dress like local schoolteachers and shop owners... we look like government bureaucrats and bankers. We appear humble, normal. We visit project sites and stroll through impoverished villages. We profess altruism, talk with local papers about the wonderful humanitarian things we are doing.
  • If we fail, an even more sinister breed steps in, ones we EHMs refer to as the jackals, men who trace their heritage directly to those earlier empires. The jackals are always there, lurking in the shadows. When they emerge, heads of state are overthrown or die in violent "accidents." And if by chance the jackals fail, as they failed in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the old models resurface. When the jackals fail, young Americans are sent in to kill and to die.

Chapter 1, An Economic Hit Man Is Born

  • Ann and I completed Peace Corps training in Southern California and headed for Ecuador in September 1968. We lived in the Amazon with the Shuar whose lifestyle did indeed resemble that of precolonial North American natives; we also worked in the Andes with descendants of the Incas. It was a side of the world I never dreamed still existed.
  • He started talking with me about the benefits of working for a company like MAIN. When I mentioned that I had been accepted by the NSA before joining the Peace Corps, and that I was considering going back to them, he informed me that he sometimes acted as an NSA liaison; he gave me a look that made me suspect that part of his assignment was to evaluate my capabilities.
  • When my Peace Corps tour was over, Einar invited me to a job interview at MAIN headquarters in Boston. During our private meeting, he emphasized that MAIN'S primary business was engineering but that his biggest client, the World Bank, recently had begun insisting that he keep economists on staff to produce the critical economic forecasts used to determine the feasibility and magnitude of engineering projects.
  • An attractive brunette woman came up and sat in a chair across the table from me. In her dark green business suit, she looked very sophisticated. I judged her to be several years my senior, but I tried to focus on not noticing her, on acting indifferent. After a few minutes, without a word, she slid an open book in my direction. It contained a table with information I had been searching for about Kuwait — and a card with her name, Claudine Martin, and her title, Special Consultant to Chas. T. Main, Inc. I looked up into her soft green eyes, and she extended her hand. "I've been asked to help in your training," she said. I could not believe this was happening to me.
  • During our first hour together, she explained that my position was an unusual one and that we needed to keep everything highly confidential. She told me that no one had given me specifics about my job because no one was authorized to — except her. Then she informed me that her assignment was to mold me into an economic hit man. The very name awakened old cloak-and-dagger dreams. I was embarrassed by the nervous laughter I heard coming from me. She smiled and assured me that humor was one of the reasons they used the term. "Who would take it seriously?" she asked.
  • I know now what I did not then — that Claudine took full advantage of the personality weaknesses the NSA profile had disclosed about me. I do not know who supplied her with the information... only that she used it masterfully. Her approach, a combination of physical seduction and verbal manipulation, was tailored specifically for me, and yet it fit within the standard operating procedures I have since seen used by a variety of businesses when the stakes are high and the pressure to close lucrative deals is great. She knew from the start that I would not jeopardize my marriage by disclosing our clandestine activities. And she was brutally frank when it came to describing the shadowy side of things that would be expected of me.
  • Claudine told me that there were two primary objectives of my work. First, I was to justify huge international loans that would funnel money back to MAIN and other U.S. companies (such as Bechtel, Halliburton, Stone & Webster, and Brown & Root) through massive engineering and construction projects. Second, I would work to bankrupt the countries that received those loans (after they had paid MAIN and the other U.S. contractors, of course) so that they would be forever beholden to their creditors, and so they would present easy targets when we needed favors, including military bases, UN votes, or access to oil and other natural resources.
  • The unspoken aspect of every one of these projects was that they were intended to create large profits for the contractors, and to make a handful of wealthy and influential families in the receiving countries very happy, while assuring the long-term financial dependence and therefore the political loyalty of governments around the world.
  • The larger the loan, the better. The fact that the debt burden placed on a country would deprive its poorest citizens of health, education, and other social services for decades to come was not taken into consideration.
  • The rich get richer and the poor grow poorer. Yet, from a statistical standpoint, this is recorded as economic progress.
  • Like U.S. citizens in general, most MAIN employees believed we were doing countries favors when we built power plants, highways, and ports. Our schools and our press have taught us to perceive all of our actions as altruistic. Over the years, I've repeatedly heard comments like, "If they're going to burn the U.S. flag and demonstrate against our embassy, why don't we just get out of their damn country and let them wallow in their own poverty?" People who say such things often hold diplomas certifying that they are well educated. However, these people have no clue that the main reason we establish embassies around the world is to serve our own interests, which during the last half of the twentieth century meant turning the American republic into a global empire. Despite credentials, such people are as uneducated as those eighteenth century colonists who believed that the Indians fighting to defend their lands were servants of the devil.

Chapter 7, Civilization on Trial

  • A beautiful woman, an English major at the university, sat across the table from me..."But why should there be such animosity between Muslims and Christians?" I asked... "Because," she said slowly, as though addressing someone slow-witted or hard of hearing, "the West — especially its leader, the U.S. — is determined to take control of all the world, to become the greatest empire in history. It has already gotten very close to succeeding. The Soviet Union currently stands in its way... History demonstrates that faith — soul, a belief in higher powers — is essential. We Muslims have it. We have it more than anyone else in the world, even more than the Christians. So we wait. We grow strong." ... "We will take our time," one of the men chimed in, "and then like a snake we will strike."
  • "What a horrible thought!" I could barely contain myself. "What can we do to change this?" The English major looked me directly in the eyes. "Stop being so greedy," she said, "and so selfish. Realize that there is more to the world than your big houses and fancy stores. People are starving and you worry about oil for your cars. Babies are dying of thirst and you search the fashion magazines for the latest styles. Nations like ours are drowning in poverty, but your people don't even hear our cries for help. You shut your ears to the voices of those who try to tell you these things. You label them radicals or Communists. You must open your hearts to the poor and downtrodden, instead of driving them further into poverty and servitude. There's not much time left. If you don't change, you're doomed."

Chapter 29, I Take a Bribe

  • During this time in my life, I came to realize that we truly had entered a new era in world economics. Events set in motion while Robert McNamara—the man who had served as one of my models — reigned as secretary of defense and president of the World Bank had escalated beyond my gravest fears. McNamara's Keynesian-inspired approach to economics, and his advocacy of aggressive leadership, had become pervasive. The EHM concept had expanded to include all manner of executives in a wide variety of businesses. They may not have been recruited or profiled by the NSA, but they were performing similar functions.
  • The only difference now was that the corporate executive EHMs did not necessarily involve themselves with the use of funds from the international banking community. While the old branch, my branch, continued to thrive, the new version took on aspects that were even more sinister. During the 1980s, young men and women rose up through the ranks of middle management believing that any means justified the end: an enhanced bottom line. Global empire was simply a pathway to increased profits.
  • The Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) was passed by Congress in 1978, went through a series of legal challenges, and finally became law in 1982. Congress originally envisioned the law as a way to encourage small, independent companies... to develop alternative fuels and other innovative approaches to producing electricity. Under this law, the major utility companies were required to purchase energy generated by the smaller companies, at fair and reasonable prices. This policy was a result of Carter's desire to reduce U.S. dependence on oil —all oil, not just imported oil. The intent of the law was clearly to encourage both alternative energy sources and the development of independent companies that reflected America's entrepreneurial spirit. However, the reality turned out to be something very different.
  • During the 1980s and into the 1990s, the emphasis switched from entrepreneurship to deregulation. I watched as most of the other small independents were swallowed up by the large engineering and construction firms, and by the public utility companies themselves. The latter found legal loopholes that allowed them to create holding companies, which could own both the regulated utility companies and the unregulated independent energy-producing corporations. Many of them launched aggressive programs to drive the independents into bankruptcy and then purchase them... The idea of reducing our oil dependence fell by the wayside. Reagan was deeply indebted to the oil companies; Bush had made his own fortune as an oilman. And most of the key players and cabinet members in these two administrations were either part of the oil industry or were part of the engineering and construction companies so closely tied to it. Moreover, in the final analysis, oil and construction were not partisan; many Democrats had profited from and were beholden to them also.
  • What was going on in the energy field was symbolic of a trend that was affecting the whole world. Concerns about social welfare, the environment, and other quality-of-life issues took a backseat to greed. In the process, an overwhelming emphasis was placed on promoting private businesses. At first, this was justified on theoretical bases, including the idea that capitalism was superior to and would deter communism. Eventually, however, such justification was unneeded. It was simply accepted a priori that there was something inherently better about projects owned by wealthy investors rather than by governments.
  • International organizations such as the World Bank bought into this notion, advocating deregulation and privatization of water and sewer systems, communications networks, utility grids, and other facilities that up until then had been managed by governments.
  • As a result, it was easy to expand the EHM concept into the larger community, to send executives from a broad spectrum of businesses on missions previously reserved for the few of us recruited into an exclusive club. These executives fanned out across the planet. They sought the cheapest labor pools, the most accessible resources, and the largest markets. They were ruthless in their approach. Like the EHMs who had gone before them —like me, in Indonesia, in Panama, and in Colombia—they found ways to rationalize their misdeeds. And like us, they ensnared communities and countries. They promised affluence, a way for countries to use the private sector to dig themselves out of debt. They built schools and highways, donated telephones, televisions, and medical services. In the end, however, if they found cheaper workers or more accessible resources elsewhere, they left. When they abandoned a community whose hopes they had raised, the consequences were often devastating, but they apparently did this without a moment's hesitation or a nod to their own consciences.
  • As I mulled over these issues, I decided it was time to write a tell-all book, Conscience of an Economic Hit Man, but I made no attempt to keep the work quiet. Even today, I am not the sort of writer who writes in isolation. I find it necessary to discuss the work I am doing. I receive inspiration from other people, and I call upon them to help me remember and put into perspective events of the past. I like to read sections of the materials I am working on to friends, so I may hear their reactions. I understand that this may be risky, yet I know no other way for me to write. Thus, it was no secret that I was writing a book about my time with MAIN.
  • ...You will not mention political subjects or any dealings with international banks and development projects." He peered at me. "Simply a matter of confidentiality."... "It goes without saying," I assured him. For an instant, my heart seemed to stop beating. An old feeling returned, similar to ones I had experienced... in Indonesia, while driving through Panama City... and while sitting in a Colombian coffee shop with Paula. I was selling out — again. This was not a bribe in the legal sense — it was perfectly above board and legitimate for this company to pay to include my name on their roster, to call upon me for advice or to show up at a meeting from time to time, but I understood the real reason I was being hired. He offered me an annual retainer that was equivalent to an executive's salary. Later that afternoon I sat in an airport, stunned, waiting for my flight back to Florida. I felt like a prostitute. Worse than that, I felt I had betrayed my daughter, my family, and my country. And yet, I told myself, I had little choice. I knew that if I had not accepted this bribe, the threats would have followed.

Chapter 33, Venezuela: Saved by Saddam


Full text online in multiple formats

  • I had watched Venezuela for many years. It was a classic example of a country that rose from rags to riches as a result of oil. It was also a model of the turmoil oil wealth foments, of the disequilibrium between rich and poor, and of a country shamelessly exploited by the corporatocracy. It had become the epitome of a place where old-style EHMs like me converged with the new-style, corporate version.
  • The events... were a direct result of the 1998 elections, when the poor and disenfranchised of Venezuela elected Hugo Chavez by a landslide as their president. He immediately instituted drastic measures, taking control of the courts and other institutions and dissolving the Venezuelan Congress. He denounced the United States for its "shameless imperialism," spoke out forcefully against globalization, and introduced a hydrocarbons law that was reminiscent, even in name, to the one Jaime Roldos had brought to Ecuador shortly before his airplane went down. The law doubled the royalties charged to foreign oil companies. Then Chavez defied the traditional independence of the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, by replacing its top executives with people loyal to him... By taking over the industry, Chavez had thrust himself onto the world stage as a major player.
  • During the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, petroleum prices skyrocketed and Venezuela's national budget quadrupled. The EHMs went to work. The international banks flooded the country with loans that paid for vast infrastructure and industrial projects and for the highest skyscrapers on the continent. Then, in the 1980s, the corporate-style EHMs arrived. It was an ideal opportunity for them to cut their fledgling teeth. The Venezuelan middle class had become sizable, and provided a ripe market for a vast array of products, yet there was still a very large poor sector available to labor in the sweat shops and factories.
  • Then oil prices crashed, and Venezuela could not repay its debts. In 1989, the IMF imposed harsh austerity measures and pressured Caracas to support the corporatocracy in many other ways. Venezuelans reacted violently; riots killed over two hundred people. The illusion of oil as a bottomless source of support was shattered. Between 1978 and 2003, Venezuela's per capita income plummeted by over 40 percent.
  • As poverty increased, resentment intensified. Polarization resulted, with the middle class pitted against the poor. As so often occurs in countries whose economies depend on oil production, demographics radically shifted. The sinking economy took its toll on the middle class, and many fell into the ranks of the poor. The new demographics set the stage for Chavez — - and for conflict with Washington...
  • By December 2002, the situation in both Venezuela and in Iraq reached crisis points... Then came the news that they had succeeded; Chavez had been ousted.... If Mr. Reich, and the Bush administration were celebrating the coup against Chavez, the party was suddenly cut short. In an amazing turnabout. Chavez regained the upper hand and was back in power less than seventy-two hours later. Unlike Mossadegh in Iran, Chavez had managed to keep the military on his side, despite all attempts to turn its highest-ranking officers against him. In addition, he had the powerful state oil company on his side. Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) defied the thousands of striking workers and made a comeback...
  • Chavez tightened his government's grip on oil company employees, purged the military of the few disloyal officers who had been persuaded to betray him, and forced many of his key opponents out of the country. He demanded twenty-year prison terms for two prominent opposition leaders, Washington-connected operatives who had joined the jackals to direct the nationwide strike. In the final analysis, the entire sequence of events was a calamity for the Bush administration. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Bush administration officials acknowledged Tuesday that they had discussed the removal of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for months with military and civilian leaders from Venezuela... The administration's handling of the abortive coup has come under increasing scrutiny. It was obvious that not only had the EHMs failed, but so had the jackals. Venezuela in 2003 turned out to be very different from Iran in 1953. I wondered if this was a harbinger or simply an anomaly and what Washington would do next.
  • At least for the time being, I believe a serious crisis was averted in Venezuela — and Chavez was saved — by Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration could not take on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela all at once. At the moment, it had neither the military muscle nor the political support to do so. I knew, however, that such circumstances could change quickly, and that President Chavez was likely to face fierce opposition in the near future. Krrish

Quotes about

  • John Perkins was recruited by the National Security Agency during his last year at Boston University's School of Business Administration, 1968. He spent the next three years in the Peace Corps in South America... As Chief Economist and Director of Economics and Regional Planning at Chas. T. Main, Perkins says his primary job was to convince Less Developed Countries (LDCs) around the world to accept multibillion dollar loans for infrastructure projects... The loans left the recipient countries wallowing in debt and highly vulnerable to outside political and commercial interests. He documents his experience in the New York Times bestseller
  • This is what John Perkinsbook (2004) about being an economic hit man for the World Bank is all about. He realized that his job was to get countries to borrow dollars to build huge projects that could only be paid for by the country exporting more – which required breaking its labor unions and lowering wages so that it could be competitive in the race to the bottom that the World Bank and IMF encourage... [The World Bank's]... job is to do in the financial sphere what, in the past, was done by military force... Instead of bullets, it uses financial maneuvering. As long as other countries play an artificial economic game that U.S. diplomacy can control, finance is able to achieve today what used to require bombing and loss of life by soldiers. In this case the loss of life occurs in the debtor countries. Population growth shrinks, suicides go up. The World Bank engages in economic warfare that is just as destructive as military warfare.

See also