Readers of this newspaper [The Guardian] should be more aware than most of the campaign to cancel the debts of third world countries; but you still might not know how, or worse, why, those debts came about. I was hazy on the precise details, but after reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man I consider myself rather better informed. And a lot more dismayed.
John Perkins was recruited as a young man by the National Security Agency - somewhat to his surprise, considering that in his interview he had been grilled on his youthful insubordination, friendships with suspicious foreigners, and sexual frustrations. It turns out that it doesn't hurt to be a bit damaged in the NSA's eyes - it makes you more biddable. He was then employed by Chas T Main, a company whose competitors included Bechtel and Halliburton, of which you may have heard. As to what Main's business was, Perkins says that "during my first months there even I could not figure out what we did".
He found out eventually. Ostensibly an economist, his job was to go off to developing countries, offer them enormous loans with which to improve their infrastructures, and provide wildly inflated projections of the economic growth these improvements would bring. Presented to the right people, these bogus figures did the trick, a deliberately underhand assault on a nation's de facto sovereignty. Contractors - US contractors, naturally - would move in and build the pipelines or the drilling platforms or the power stations, the economy would fail to grow anything like as fast as predicted, the country would default on its loan, and so find itself in hock to the US in perpetuity - or until it underwent revolutionary regime change. The textbook case of this is Iran, where Perkins found himself a very short time before the fall of the shah.
Things didn't work out quite as planned there. (Although the seeds of that debacle had been sown, as Perkins reminds us, in 1951, when Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore's grandson, helped to cause the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh by, among other things, stirring up Muslim leaders to instigate revolt. You will also find references, in other chapters, to the money the US gave Osama bin Laden.) But there were plenty of places where the strategy had worked: a few families in the target countries would become immeasurably wealthier, the poor would become poorer, the money lent would often, after the enriching process, do little more than move around various banks within the US, and if anyone at the top grumbled or refused to play ball, they could be assassinated. Few assert, and fewer believe, that the death of Panama's Omar Torrijos in 1981 was accidental. Anyway, it's all here, in toe-curling detail, and after reading it you will find the fictional exploits of the kind of people we imagine to work as undercover agents turn your stomach with their mendacious disconnection from reality.
One question that bothers me is how come Perkins himself has not been assassinated or silenced. It is possible that his old bosses have decided that, as the author of books with titles like Shapeshifting, The World Is As You Dream It and Spirit of the Shuar, he has fallen off into the realm of the incurably flakey and is therefore not worth bothering about. In fact, at one point I even found myself wondering whether Perkins's confessions are concoctions intended to divert us from the truth, whatever that may be.
But Ockham's razor, as well as natural suspicion towards the motives of Bechtel, Halliburton and the US government, compels me to accept this as a plausible and accurate enough account. If the book had been a fiction it might have been somewhat better written (it is not written badly, but it is clear that communication rather than elegance is favoured). There is a scene where he watches a shadow puppet play in Indonesia, during which the puppet master predicts a war between America and Islam; that may be a little pat, considering the scene takes place while Nixon is still in power. (It would make a great scene in any potential film of the book.) But once you've absorbed the book's central message, it makes the news look rather different.