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Portrait of an insider as an enticer

Report>>his is the autobiography of a man

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Friday 30 November 2007

-- This is the autobiography of a man whose job was to entice leaders of underdeveloped countries. In the 1970s John Perkins was an economic hit man, among those highly paid professionals who cheat developing countries of trillions of dollars by funnelling aid money into the coffers of transnational corporations. Fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion and a lot of other kinds of sleaze were his stock-in-trade. Perkins begun to confess his role and expose the game since the early 1980s, but was stopped by bribes and threats. The realization that the events of September 11 were somehow linked to his dealings proved the final spur.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man belongs to a rich tradition of corporate insiders puncturing less seemly aspects of their professions. In the 1920s, stock speculator Jesse Livermore revealed the many underhanded secrets to his success as a trader in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. The roman--clef is still widely read. S C Gwynne's Selling Money, the story of his experiences as a nave banker lending millions to third-world countries has become a benchmark.

But Perkin's book has raised the bar for tell-all. Unlike many other cathartic writings, it's not self-serving. In the late 1960s, Perkins was recruited by the us National Security Agency ( nsa), somewhat to his surprise, given that in his interview he had been grilled on his youthful insubordination, friendships with suspicious foreigners and his dissolute ways. The three-year stint at the security agency took him to South America where in 1970 he met Einar Greve, vice-president of Chas T. Main Inc, a Boston-based consultancy firm providing services associated with electrical power and industrial and environmental facilities. Greve turned out to be nsa's liaison officer in Ecuador and a year later Perkin's was recruited by Chas T Main. Ostensibly an economist, his job was to set base in developing countries, provide wildly inflated projections of the economic growth and lure them with enormous loans to improve their infrastructure.

Presented to the right people, the bogus figures did the trick. Third-world countries would borrow billions of dollars from the World Bank thinking they would benefit by undertaking massive engineering projects proposed by us -based firms: projects like dams, national electrical infrastructure and water treatment plants. But the countries never saw the money because it was transferred directly to the contractors who did the work. And when the
projected economic benefits did not materialize, transnational corporations assumed mineral rights.

World traveller
For over a decade Perkins camped in Indonesia, Panama, Ecuador, Columbia and Saudi Arabia. Panamanian president Omar Torrijos became his personal friend. The economic hit man helped implement a secret scheme that transferred billions of Saudi petrodollars back into the us economy, and that further cemented the intimate relationship between the Saudi Arabian ruling house and a succession of American administrations. The Islamic revolution in Iran put paid to his machinations there. But there were plenty of places where the hit man's strategy had worked. A few families in the target countries would become horribly wealthier, the poor would become poorer, the money lent would often do little more than move around various banks within the us , and those who refused to play ball risked assassination. In Panama, Manuel Noriega and Torrijos both got in the way, says Perkins, so Torrijos was killed and Noriega arrested and imprisoned in the us . Meanwhile, Ecuador's President, Jaime Rolds, who stood up to American oil companies, died in a helicopter crash. "The deaths were not accidental.. We Economic Hit Men failed to bring Rolds and Torrijos around, and the other type of hit men, the ci a-s anctioned jackals who were always right behind us, stepped in," Perkins writes.

If the plot seems akin to John Le Carre novel, there is a little touch of irony in this: Perkins was asked by many a publisher to fictionalize his account like Le Carre. Sometimes though, Perkins prose doesn't always convey the remorse of the economic hit man. Co nfessions of an Economic Hit Man has become a best seller catapulting him to the status of book-signing author, nevertheless. Perhaps because it captures in toe-curling detail the sleazy underpinning of the world economic order.

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