Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (a book review)

Confessions of an Economic Hit ManHow does one distinguish repentant confession from fat cat remorse?

John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man presents an intriguing tale of US efforts to increase its political and financial power by manipulating underdeveloped countries into taking on extravagant debt. Perkins himself willingly (and for handsome gain) took part in the manipulation by preparing absurdly optimistic economic forecasts designed to encourage countries to hire US firms to upgrade their energy infrastructures.

Despite the initial intrigue, Perkins’ self-serving apologies had grown tedious enough to me that halfway through the book I nearly decided to close it permanently. Then Perkins dropped a series of unexpected allegations that caught my attention. On pp. 142-143 he writes:

Roldós [president of Ecuador] was the rare modern politician who was not afraid to oppose the status quo. He went after the oil companies and the not-so-subtle system that supported them.

For instance, he accused the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), an evangelical missionary group from the United States, of sinister collusion with the oil companies. I was familiar with SIL missionaries from my Peace Corps days. The organization had entered Ecuador, as it had so many other countries, under the pretext of studying, recording, and translating indigenous languages.

SIL had been working extensively with the Huaorani tribe in the Amazon basin area, during the early years of oil exploration, when a disturbing pattern emerged. Whenever seismologists reported to corporate headquarters that a certain region had characteristics indicating a high probability of oil beneath the surface, SIL went in and encouraged the indigenous people to move from that land, onto missionary reservations; there they would receive free food, shelter, clothes, medical treatment, and missionary-style education. The condition was that they had to deed their lands to the oil companies.

Rumors abounded that SIL missionaries used an assortment of underhanded techniques to persuade the tribes to abandon their homes and move to the missions. A frequently repeated story was that they had donated food heavily laced with laxatives — then offered medicines to cure the diarrhea epidemic. Throughout Huaorani territory, SIL airdropped false-bottomed food baskets containing tiny radio transmitters; receivers at highly sophisticated communications stations, manned by U.S. military personnel at the army base in Shell, tuned in to these transmitters. Whenever a member of the tribe was bitten by a poisonous snake or became seriously ill, an SIL representative arrived with antivenom or the proper medicines — often in oil company helicopters.

During the early days of oil exploration, five SIL missionaries were found dead with Huaorani spears protruding from their bodies. Later, the Huaoranis claimed they did this to send SIL a message to keep out. The message went unheeded. In fact, it ultimately had the opposite effect. Rachel Saint, the sister of one of the murdered men, toured the United States, appearing on national television in order to raise money and support for SIL and the oil companies, who she claimed were helping the “savages” become civilized and educated.

SIL received funding from the Rockefeller charities. Jaime Roldós claimed that these Rockefeller connections proved that SIL was really a front for stealing indigenous lands and promoting oil exploration; family scion John D. Rockefeller had founded Standard Oil — which later divested into the majors, including Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil.1

1. For extensive details on SIL, its history, activities, and association with the oil companies and the Rockefellers, see Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennet, Thy Will Be Done, The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (New York: HarperCollins, 1995); Joe Kane, Savages (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) (for information on Rachel Saint, pp 85, 156, 227).

Not surprisingly, SIL denies the charges.

How much of Perkins’ story is true? It may be worth investigating.

  • Did SIL have any kind of business arrangement with any oil company?
  • If such a connection existed, what did it consist of?
  • Were the missionaries themselves aware of any such connection (or was it strictly between the mission agency and the oil company)?
  • Did the missionaries donate food laced with laxatives?
  • Did SIL receive funding from the Rockefeller charities?

On the other hand, a healthy amount of skepticism regarding John Perkins’ insinuations would be neither unfounded nor unreasonable.

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