Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book Review: The Secret History of the American Empire

Book Review: “The Secret History of the American Empire”, by John Perkins, 2007.
“Economic Hit Men, Jackals and the Truth about Global Corruption.”

This is the sequel to John Perkins’ book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.” The books could have probably been combined, as they cover the same territory, although “Secret History” is mostly concerned with a later time in Perkins’ life.

If you haven’t read Perkins yet, he worked in the 70-80s for ‘consulting’ companies that planned dependencies in poor and developing nations, and even in oil-rich ones. They did this by advocating massive building and agricultural projects that would create debt to U.S banks and agencies like the World Bank. The construction projects used huge construction firms from the U.S. like Bechtel, and guaranteed ongoing needs for U.S. products during and after the projects completion. In the process, privatization was demanded as part of this ‘modernization,’ part of the “Structural Adjustment Program” used by the IMF.

In preparation for each project, Perkins created bogus ‘economic’ projections to justify the projects (as he says, econometrics can be used to justify almost anything), while others engaged in bribery to gain support for the projects from local government and business officials. The upshot was and is an ongoing dependency on U.S. imperialism, and a corrupt local comprador bourgeoisie – what Perkins calls the “corporatocracy.” The projects were always couched as if they would help the ordinary working person in the country at issue, but these were, of course, the people who actually lost the most. Iraq could be seen as an example of the ECM plan, but through a 'disaster' – benefiting almost exclusively U.S. corporations with contracts, tax monies and higher oil prices. “Disaster capitalism,” as this version has been called, was also brought in after the ‘opportunity’ of the Asian Tsunami, according to Perkins.

Perkins called this being an economic ‘hit’ man – an EHM. The partner to the economic hit man is a ‘jackal’ – essentially the person brought in when the initial bribery and bogus economic projections don’t work. The ‘jackal’ is the person who tells the head of the country that they can cooperate and accept bribes, or … die. That usually gets their attention. Perkins, from personal information, suggests this was done to a former president of Ecuador, who became a lackey for the World Bank and the IMF after a jackal visit.

Perkins books are couched in the terms of a ‘mea culpa.’ While an EHM, he enjoyed high salaries, luxurious accommodations, trips to exotic locales, sexual favors and the respect of powerful people. He got to order about officers from local governments, as he illustrates here in a story about Egypt. He, with only a lowly BS in economics! Now he is an activist with several grass roots organizations dedicated to helping Amazonian and Ecuadorian native communities fight the oil companies. He started out as a Peace Corps volunteer in this same area, and credits that experience, as well as his working-class background, with being able to see through the EHMs.

Here are some nuggets from this book.

From personal reports by soldiers involved, the U.S. has special armed forces in Columbia training Columbian troops for intervention in Venezuela, under the cover of a ‘drug’ war. Mercenaries are also being trained by the U.S. in Guyana, on the other side of Venezuela. As if in confirmation, only a month ago, Columbian troops crossed the border into Venezuela to kill FARC guerillas that they claimed were drug dealers. Venezuela and Ecuador moved troops to their borders in response to this incursion. As Perkins points out, drug dealing and drug running have been common tactics of the CIA and their Latin American cronies themselves for many years. Columbia is the only nation in Latin America right now that allows this kind of massive U.S. military presence. Columbia is the 4th largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. The implication is the government will use Columbia like they used Costa Rica and other countries' territory against Nicaragua in the 80s. The name ‘drug’ war is clearly a misnomer.

Perkins’ coverage of Latin America hails the recent election of indigenous and progressive leaders after years of dictators and U.S. puppets. His own experience in Bolivia is part of the story. He was actually offered the presidency of the largest power company in Bolivia, Bolivia Power, by its U.S. owner, Leucadia National. They treated him like royalty, he toured the country, he saw the rivers and dams and especially the key “Zongo River” project, staying in that Zongo valley in an exquisite cabin. They told him he would be the second most powerful person in Bolivia after the president, because he would control the country’s electricity. Perkins told Leucadia he would take the job only if he could turn Boliva Power into a model of environmental and popular economics, aiding the poorest Bolivians, and not flooding valleys and towns. Leucadia never called him back.

Perkins details the famous fight waged by the people of Bolivia against the water companies. Part of the World Bank plan is to privatize any commodity possible, including water. The Cochabamba water system was privatized by Bechtel. After Bechtel’s front group bought the public water system, water rates skyrocketed. The population of Cochabamba revolted in 2000 and shut down the city. Bechtel demanded ‘protection’ from the federal government and the president, Hugo Banzer, rushed in troops to protect privatized water. Dozens of indigenous people were injured and one died. Banzer then declared martial law, and, in a corner, eventually voided the contract. Bechtel did not give up but sued Bolivia in a world court, claiming profits from their ‘expropriated’ investment. These events later lead to the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia. Now the water system in Cochabamba is run in the interests of all people , as a public service.

Assassination is a well-used tactic of the U.S. empire.
Perkins, and most Latin Americans, consider that the plane crashes of the president of Ecuador, Jaime Roldos, and the president of Panama, Omar Torrijos, were assassinations carried out by the U.S. Only a month after standing up to the U.S. government and Houston oil interests, Roldos plane went down in 1981. Two months later in 1981,Torrijos plane also crashed, after he refused to make a deal on the Panama Canal with Washington. There is quite a long list of left-wing and 'controversial' people who go down in small airplanes.

Paul Wellstone’s plane also ‘inexplicably’ crashed after he became one of the most liberal members of the highly-contested Senate right here in Minnesota. Reportedly, FBI agents showed up at the crash site near Virginia within an hour of the crash … after traveling from Minneapolis. Impossible without foreknowledge, as anyone who has driven that road knows. It takes almost three hours to drive from the Cities to Eveleth, near where the crash happened. Cellular communications in the area were disrupted just before the crash. It is clear the government has powerful signal technology to turn airplane motors off or confuse navigation systems, and it's use is not limited to abroad.

Other targets of the empires’s jackals? Besides Arbenz of Guatemala, Allende of Chile, Mossedegh of Iran, Lumumba of the Congo and other well-known examples, Perkins mentions that Saddam Hussein was on a CIA hit squad that tried and failed to kill a former nationalist head of the Iraqi government, Abdul Qasim, after Qasim threatened to nationalize Iraqi oil. Later, U.S. and British troops executed Qasim on television. 5,000 more Iraqi people accused of ‘communism’ were also rounded up and executed. Hussein himself met the same fate years later, after acting as a U.S. agent and buyer of U.S. armaments and gas in the war against Iran. Similar to Manuel Norriega, who was used as a CIA agent against Torrijos, then went to jail after an illegal invasion of his country when he partially turned against the U.S.

Because of Perkins high profile, other EHMs and jackals give him information. A friend of his told him how the U.S., through South Africa, tried to assassinate and overthrow the president of the Seychelles, France Albert-Rene, for opposing the U.S. presence on Diego Garcia, and the expulsion of thousands of residents of that island to make way for a massive U.S. airbase. They failed, in a bloody shoot-out at the Seychelles airport, also in 1981. But this had the desired effect on Mr. Albert-Rene, nevertheless, who became much more circumspect about his opposition to Diego Garcia.

As Perkins makes clear, control of oil is a large part of the world pattern pursued by the U.S. He is most proud of his role in pegging oil to the dollar, which has propped up Wall Street and U.S. imperialism since the dollar went off the gold standard in the early 70s. He calls it the 'oil standard.'

Perkins sees Africa as the dead canary in this world coalmine. Conditions in Africa, in spite of the propaganda about improvments, are worse now after decades of foreign 'aid' and World Bank programs. At present, Africa is being looted openly by any corporate power that is able to do so. War, famine, environmental degradation and sickness haunt the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and any country that has oil, diamonds, ores and cheap labor - Sudan/Darfur have much oil and the Congo metal ingredients vitally necessary for cell phones and computers. Perkins points out that many NGO’s are actually working for the corporatocracy as part of either cultural imperialism or direct aid. He cites an example of inexperienced Malian Peace Corps volunteers sent to Mali to ‘teach’ Malians how to farm. Their real purpose was to get Malians to use pesticides, oil-based fertilizers, GMO seed and World Bank money – i.e. increase Mali's dependence on Western corporations. In the process, they put Malian farmers into debt, depleted the soil and ruined local seed varieties.

Perkins sees the overwhelming dominance of the U.S. corporatocracy as a human and environmental disaster threatening the world, and he claims the only way to change it is to ‘change’ corporations. Perkins cites the work of explicitly pro-capitalist organizations like RainForest Action Network (RAN), who have run what he calls successful campaigns against Shell Oil, Home Depot, Mitsubishi, Kinkos, Boise Cascade, Citigroup, Bank of America, JP Morgan, McDonalds and Goldman Sachs to mitigate environmental damage to the worlds’ forests. Perkins calls it a “new capitalism” - to make capitalists stop being imperialistic and become democratic. Others call this capitalism 3.0... His point is, they are human too, and will move beyond short term profit. Perkins cites MoveOn and Amnesty International’s shareholder activism as the routes to changing corporations. He also mentions Jesse Jackson’s Wall Street Project, which he says have influenced Coca Cola, 7 Eleven, Shoneys, Coors and others against discrimination.

This is where Perkins goes off the rails. The issues of corporate America are so multifarious that, let’s say a pledge not to cut ‘old growth’ or endangered timber by Home Depot is, A, difficult to monitor, and B, incomplete. Many companies will sign “green” or ‘progressive’ documents, but will not actually act on them. He gives no evidence that RAN is actually able to monitor whether these companies are keeping their promises… which in the past, have not been worth the paper they are printed on. An example is Coca Cola. On the exact same page in Perkins' book, Jesse Jackson’s Wall Street Project lauds Coke for being against discrimination presumably… and in the next paragraph, TIAA Cref drops Coca-Cola from their socially responsible mutual funds because Coke was killing and intimidating union organizers in Columbia. And I know that "Coke" is depleting the water table in parched Georgia to produce their useless bottled waters. Each single-issue organization tries to get some paper pledge to action in one area, while the corporation oozes out in another direction, still acting like the imperialist consortium it is. Viewed as a whole, corporate America runs rampant, and has no united national or even international opposition that can call them on ALL their shots.

Recent articles in the world press have shown that governments and even traditional corporate boards are being superseded by 6,000 trans-international financiers, mostly older white males, acting as an ‘uber’ ruling class for the whole world. These people are like the hyper imperialist ‘hedge’ funds of the corporatocracy, the ultimate jet-setting Davos star chamber. After painting a picture of a bloody years-long struggle for domination by the worlds’ corporations, Perkins expects us to think the people who hire ‘jackals’ will calmly lie down with the lambs after some meek pressure. Never does he mention as desirable unions, or strikes, or demonstrations, or land occupations, or Peoples Partys, or even revolutions - any of the really powerful mechanisms the working class has to influence the world. He relegates them to secondary status, while the massive force of negative advertising, consumer boycotts, shareholder resolutions, on-line petitions, board room elections and street theatre work their magic. His one saving grace is that he supports communities organizing for their own needs.

Perkins is to be admired for being part of the solution, but his solutions are not sufficient. I wish they were. Attempts to give corporate capitalism a human face will fail, if only because corporations are not human – they are legally and solely profit centers dedicated to growth and not much else. Certainly they can be mitigated. But there is no evidence that the rapacious practices of the corporatocracy have changed sufficiently to warrant the optimism that half-measures will succeed. That is why socialism still is on the agenda for the world.

...And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, 3/23/08

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Book Review: "The Worst Hard Time"

Book Review: “The Worst Hard Time”, by Timothy Egan, 2006

There’s a thunder of dust coming towards you. It is crawling down the walls of your house. Your wet sheets have no effect. It has shorted out the battery in your car. Your kids are coughing it out of their lungs. Drifts of dust are covering the windows. The crops are dead and buried. The cattle cannot find a blade of grass. The chickens are running for shelter. And it happens many days in the year, year after year, from the beginning to the end of the 30s, until you stay or you leave. Northern Texas panhandle, Oklahoma panhandle, southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, southern Nebraska. This is the dust bowl. Your land. It should have never grown crops, but it did, wheat, for a few years in the early 30s. An environmental tragedy. A human tragedy. A tragedy created by government, greed and ignorance.

Timothy Egan, a reporter for the New York Times, got out of town and covered a story that only touched old New York City a few times. The dust from the West actually darkened the skies in New York and Washington D.C. in 1934 several times, enough to get the Roosevelt administration to enact some kind of policy to deal with this disaster, the darkest hole within the depression.

Egan paints a picture of the tough people who settled these plains and stayed, not the people that left. The area was originally covered by long prairie bluestem and buffalo grasses, home to nomadic Native Americans and bison. The grasses were tough enough to last through the periodic droughts, and still hold the soil down. They provided nutrients for the millions of bison, and the life of the Cherokee and Comanche who settled these lands, and even the cowboy and European cattle that came after them.

All that changed with the advent of the farmers. While other parts of the Great Plains were settled earlier, and the northern Great Plains were already being slowly depopulated, a last area of cheap land was made available, where even the most desperate farmer could find land and, rumor had it, grow crops. And they did for a few years, when the rains were plentiful, which old-timers knew was rare. To raise wheat, they had to plow up the 12 foot tall grasses with mechanical plows, and close the ranches like the XIT ranch in northern Texas. The cowboys were aghast. The native Americans were aghast. The small town boosters like editor John L McCarty, of Dalhart, Texas, and cretinous right-wing governors like William ‘Alfalfa Bill’ Murray of Oklahoma, and presidents like Herbert Hoover, thumped their tubs, and proclaimed the new era of plenty and crops was at hand. American would grow wheat in the desert. Wheat won out – for two years. Then the desert did.

That is when the drought came. So farmers plowed up more land to try to keep up with falling production, plowing under 80 million acres total, until hardly any of the original prairie was left. And the dust started. June 1931 the main bank in Dalhart closed its doors due to the financial depression. In January 1932 the first giant dust storm hit – a 10,000 foot cloud rolled over Amarillo from the south, then went into the panhandles and into Colorado and Kansas. And the cowboys knew what had happened. As Egan puts it, 'the soil was on the move.'

Dust storms hit from 1932 to 1939, numbering from 2 to 15 a month. They destroyed the farming economy of the southern plains. They forced 1/3rd of the “Okie” population to emigrate, as portrayed in the book, “Grapes of Wrath.” But of the 2/3rd that stayed behind, a good quantity died of lung diseases, similar to miners’ black lung. Many babies did not live much past birth. Nearly all farm animals eventually died. Nearly all trees, bushes and grasses also died, except Russian ‘tumbleweed’, which farmers tried to feed to salted their cattle. The dust bowl created a huge voting surge for Roosevelt, who started programs to pay farmers not to plant, or bought farmers off the land to allow it to grow fallow. Roosevelt hired an actual scientist, Hugh Bennett, who understood soil science, to try to reclaim the southern plains. Roosevelt even came up with an idea himself, to plant trees to break the wind. From these efforts, soil reclamation areas still exist today in rural areas as an inheritance of the dust bowl. And treeline windbreaks are as common as fence-posts.

The diehard civic boosters and some farmers thundered against Roosevelt and the ‘scientists’. The poor of the dust bowl killed grass-eating rabbits in giant roundups, or hired frauds to shoot cannons in the air to make it rain, or just took to drink. Roosevelt had made 3.2 beer legal almost immediately upon taking office. Many did not want to believe that human action had created this dark immensity, that it was the normal work of nature, and that it would soon be over. It was not, and it did not end for a long time.

The biggest dust storm happened on “Black Sunday” – April 14, 1935. It started out as a beautiful blue, quiet sun-drenched day, like few on the plains. It was, ironically, Palm Sunday, which tells you the ‘lord’ doesn’t order the events of nature to the Christian calendar. It seemed the best day of the year so far. However, in Bismark, North Dakota, temperatures plunged 30 degrees as a cold high pressure front from the Yukon barreled down into the States with a violent wind, picking up the darkest wall of dirt anyone had ever seen. Visibility was less than a 100 yards as it began. It was a cold black blizzard. When the storm hit Kansas, it was 200 miles wide, like a tornado turned on its side, carrying soil from 4 states, dropping temperatures 25 degrees in a few minutes. Winds blew 65 miles per hour. Animals fled before the storm. Barbed-wire fences glowed with static electricity. Cars quit. Planes turned back. A mile of high swirling dirt darkened the day like the end of the world. It swept all the way south, then across Texas. As Woody Guthrie sang the song, based on this very storm, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.”

Capitalism had raped the land, and the ‘deniers’ stood around claiming it was no one’s fault but “Gods,’ and that the ‘guvmint’ should stay out of it and let business take care of ‘itself.’ Sound familiar? The dust bowl is no more than a forerunner to the events already being triggered by unchecked global climate change and peaking oil, brought on by uncontrolled and inveterate capitalist growth. There will be our own “dust bowls,’ but writ large. And the same capitalist boobs and their political coat holders hold sway… but perhaps not for long.

--Red Frog, 3/11/08
And I ordered it at May Day books