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Thursday, February 19
Today, we spend the hour with a man who claims to have worked deep inside the forces driving corporate globalization. In his first book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins told the story of his work as a highly paid consultant hired to strong-arm leaders into creating policy favorable to the US government and corporations, what he calls the "corporatocracy." John Perkins says he helped the US cheat poor countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars by lending them more money than they could possibly repay and then taking over their economies. John Perkins has just come out with his second book on this issue. It's called The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals and the Truth about Global Corruption. John Perkins joins us now in the firehouse studio. Well, before we go further, "economic hit men"—for those who haven't heard you describe this, let alone describe yourself as this, what do you mean?
JOHN PERKINS: Well, really, I think it's fair to say that since World War II, we economic hit men have managed to create the world's first truly global empire, and we've done it primarily without the military, unlike other empires in history. We've done it through economics very subtly.
We work many different ways, but perhaps the most common one is that we will identify a third world country that has resources our corporations covet, such as oil, and then we arrange a huge loan to that country from the World Bank or one of its sister organizations. The money never actually goes to the country. It goes instead to US corporations, who build big infrastructure projects—power grids, industrial parks, harbors, highways—things that benefit a few very rich people but do not reach the poor at all. The poor aren't connected to the power grids. They don't have the skills to get jobs in industrial parks. But they and the whole country are left holding this huge debt, and it's such a big bet that the country can't possibly repay it. So at some point in time, we economic hit men go back to the country and say, "Look, you know, you owe us a lot of money. You can't pay your debt, so you've got to give us a pound of flesh."
AMY GOODMAN: And explain your history. What made you an economic hit man?
JOHN PERKINS: Well, when I graduated from business school at Boston University, I was recruited by the National Security Agency, the nation's largest and perhaps most secretive spy organization.
AMY GOODMAN: People sometimes think the CIA is that, but the NSA, many times larger.
JOHN PERKINS: Yeah, it is larger. It's much larger. At least it was in those days. And it's very, very secretive. We all—there's a lot of rumors. We know quite a lot about the CIA, I think, but we know very, very little about the NSA. It claims to only work in a cryptography, you know, encoding and decoding messages, but in fact we all know that they're the people who have been listening in on our telephone conversations. That's come out recently. And they're a very, very secretive organization.
They put me through a series of tests, very extensive tests, lie detector tests, psychological tests, during my last year in college. And I think it's fair to say that they identified me as a good potential economic hit man. They also identified a number of weaknesses in my character that would make it relatively easy for them to hook me, to bring me in. And I think those weaknesses, I [inaudible] might call, the three big drugs of our culture: money, power and sex. Who amongst us doesn't have one of them? I had all three at the time.
And then I joined the Peace Corps. I was encouraged to do that by the National Security Agency. I spent three years in Ecuador living with indigenous people in the Amazon and the Andes, people who today and at that time were beginning to fight the oil companies. In fact, the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the world has just been brought by these people against Texaco, Chevron. And that was incredibly good training for what I was to do.
And then, while I was still in the Peace Corps, I was brought in and recruited into a US private corporation called Charles T. Main, a consulting firm out of Boston of about 2,000 employees, very low-profile firm that did a tremendous amount of work of what I came to understand was the work of economic hit men, as I described it earlier, and that's the role I began to fulfill and eventually kind of rose to the top of that organization as its chief economist.
Part 2 - 9:58 min.
You know, that's what's very interesting about this whole system, Amy, is that there's no direct connection. The NSA had interviewed me, identified me and then essentially turned me over to this private corporation. It's a very subtle and very smart system, whereby it's the private industry that goes out and does this work. So if we're caught doing something, if we're caught bribing or corrupting local officials in some country, it's blamed on private industry, not on the US government.
And it's interesting that in the few instances when economic hit men fail, what we call "the jackals," who are people who come in to overthrow governments or assassinate their leaders, also come out of private industry. These are not CIA employees. We all have this image of the 007, the government agent hired to kill, you know, with license to kill, but these days the government agents, in my experience, don't do that. It's done by private consultants that are brought in to do this work. And I've known a number of these individuals personally and still do.Well, the Group of Eight are the wealthiest countries in the world, and basically they run the world. And the leader is the United States, and it's actually the corporations within these companies—countries, excuse me—that run it. It's not the governments, because, after all, the governments serve at the pleasure of the corporations. In our own country, we know that the next two final presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat alike, are going to each have to raise something like half a billion dollars. And that's not going to come from me and you. Primarily that's going to come from the people who own and run our big corporations. They're totally beholden to the government. So the G8 really is this group of countries that represent the biggest multinational corporations in the world and really serve at their behest.
And what we're seeing now in Europe—and we're seeing it very strongly in Latin America, we're seeing it in the Middle East—we're seeing this huge undercurrent of resistance, of protest, against this empire that's been built out of this. And it's been such a subtle empire that people haven't been aware of it, because it wasn't built by the military. It was built by economic hit men. Most of us aren't aware of it. Most Americans have no idea that these incredible lifestyles that we all lead are because we're part of a very vicious empire that literally enslaves people around the world, misuses people. But we're beginning to understand this. And the Europeans and the Latin Americans are at the forefront of this understanding.
Part 3 - 9:59 min.
When I was sent to Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1968, Texaco had just gone into Ecuador, and the promise to the Ecuadorian people at that time from Texaco and their own politicians and the World Bank was oil is going to pull this country out of poverty. And people believed it. I believed it at the time. The exact opposite has happened. Oil has made the country much more impoverished, while Texaco has made fortunes off this. It's also destroyed vast areas of the Amazon rainforest.
So the lawsuit today that's being brought by a New York lawyer and some Ecuadorian lawyers—Steve Donziger here in New York—is for $6 billion, the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the world, in the name of 30,000 Ecuadorian people against Texaco, which is now owned by Chevron, for dumping over eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste into the Ecuadorian rainforest. That's thirty times more than the Exxon Valdez. And dozens and dozens of people have died and are continuing to die of cancer and other pollution-related diseases in this area of the Amazon. So all this oil has come out of this area, and it's the poorest area of one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. And the irony of that is just so amazing.
But what I think—one of the really significant things about this, Amy, is that this law firm has taken this on, not pro bono, but they expect if they win the case, which they expect to do, to make a lot of money off of it, which is a philosophical decision. It isn't because they wanted to get rich off this. It's because they want to encourage other law firms to do similar things in Nigeria and in Indonesia and in Bolivia, in Venezuela and many other places. So they want to see a business grow out of this, of law firms going in and defending poor people, knowing that they can get a payoff from the big companies who have acted so terribly, terribly, terribly irresponsibly in the past.
And Steve Donziger, the attorney—I was in Ecuador with him just two weeks ago—and one of the very touching things he said is—he's an American attorney with, you know, very good credentials, and he says, "You know, I've seen a lot of companies make mistakes and then try to defend themselves in law courts." And he said, "That's one thing. But in this case, Texaco didn't make mistakes. This was done with intent. They knew what they were doing. To save a few bucks, they killed a lot of people." And now they're going to be forced to pay for that, to take responsibility for that, and hopefully open the door to make many companies take responsibility for the wanton destruction that's occurred. in the case of Jaime Roldos, he won the election by a landslide, and now he started to put into action his policy, his promises, and was going to tax the oil companies. If they weren't willing to give much more of their profits back to the Ecuadorian people, then he threatened to nationalize them. So I was sent down, along with other economic hit men—I played a fairly minor role in that case and a major one in Panama with Torrijos—but we were sent into these countries to get these men to change their policies, to go against their own campaign promises. And basically what you do is you tell them, "Look, you know, if you play our game, I can make you and your family very healthy. I can make sure that you get very rich. If you don't play our game, if you follow your campaign promises, you may go the way of Allende in Chile or Arbenz in Guatemala or Lumumba in the Congo." On and on, we can list all these presidents that we've either overthrown or assassinated because they didn't play our game. But Jaime would not come around, Jaime Roldos. He stayed uncorruptible, as did Omar Torrijos.
And both of these—and from an economic hit man perspective, this was very disturbing, because not only did I know I was likely to fail at my job, but I knew that if I failed, something dire was going to happen: the jackals would come in, and they would either overthrow these men or assassinate them. And in both cases, these men were assassinated, I have no doubt. They died in airplane crashes two months apart from each other in 1981—single plane; their own private planes crashed.
Part 4 - 9:08 min.
what happened with Omar Torrijos.
JOHN PERKINS: Well, Omar, again, was very stalwartly standing up to the United States, demanding that the Panama Canal should be owned by Panamanians. And I spent a lot of time with Torrijos, and I liked him very, very much as an individual. He was extremely charismatic, extremely courageous and very nationalistic about wanting to get the best for his people. And I couldn't corrupt him. I tried everything I could possibly do to bring him around. And as I was failing, I was also very concerned that something would happen to him. And sure enough—it was interesting that Jaime Roldos's plane crashed in May, and Torrijos said—got his family together and said, "I'm probably next, but I'm ready to go. We've now got the Canal turned over." He had signed a treaty with Jimmy Carter to get the Canal in Panamanian hands. He said, "I've accomplished my job, and I'm ready to go now." And he had a dream about being in a plane that hit a mountain. And within two months after it happened to Roldos, it happened to Torrijos also.
AMY GOODMAN: And you met with both these men?
JOHN PERKINS: Yes, I'd met with both of them.
AMY GOODMAN: What were your conversations like?
JOHN PERKINS: Well, especially with Torrijos, I spent a lot of time with him in some formal meetings and also at cocktail parties and barbecues—he was big on things like that—and was constantly trying to get him to come around to our side and letting him know that if he did, he and his family would get some very lucrative contracts, would become very wealthy, and, you know, warning him. And he didn't really need much warning, because he knew what would be likely to happen if he didn't. And his attitude was, "I want to get done what I can in my lifetime, and then so be it."
And it's been interesting, Amy, that since I wrote the book Confessions, Marta Roldos, who's Jaime's daughter, has come to the United States to meet with me, and I just spent time with her in Ecuador. She is now a member of parliament in Ecuador, just elected, and she married Omar Torrijos's nephew. And it's really interesting to hear their stories about what was going on—she was seventeen at the time her parents—her mother was also in the plane that her father died in; the two of them died in that plane—and then to hear her talk about how her husband, Omar's nephew, was in that meeting when the family was called together and Omar said, "I'm probably next, but I'm ready to go. I've done my job. I've done what I could do for my people. So I'm ready to go, if that's what has to happen."
AMY GOODMAN: So what were your conversations at the time with other so-called economic hit men? I mean, you became the chief consultant at Charles Main.
JOHN PERKINS: Chief economist.
AMY GOODMAN: Chief economist.
JOHN PERKINS: Right. Well, you know, when I was with other people that—we could be sitting at a table, say, in the Hotel Panama, knowing that we're both here to win these guys over, but we also had our official jobs, which were to do studies on the economy, to show how if the country accepted the loan, it was going to improve its gross national product. We would talk about those kinds of things. It's, I suspect, a little bit like if two CIA agents, spies, get together or have a beer together, they don't really talk about what they're really doing beneath the surface, but they've got an official job, too, and that's what you focus on. And, in fact, the two, in my case, are very closely linked.
So we were producing these economic reports that would prove to the World Bank and would prove to Omar Torrijos that if he accepted these huge loans, then his country's gross national product would just mushroom and pull his people out of poverty. And we produced these reports, which made sense from a mathematical econometric standpoint. And, in fact, it often happened that with these loans, the GNP, the gross national product, did increase.
But what also was true, and what Omar knew and Jaime Roldos knew and I was coming to know very strongly, was that even if the general economy increased, the poor people with these loans would get poorer. The rich would make all the money, because most of the poor people weren't even tied into the gross national product. A lot of them didn't even make income. They were living off subsistence farming. They benefited nothing, but they were left holding the debt, and because of these huge debts, their country in the long term would not be able to provide them with healthcare, education and other social services.
Part 5 - 7:09 min.
The whole story of Africa and the Congo is such a devastating and sad one. We in the United States don't even talk about Africa. We don't think about Africa. You know, Congo has something called coltan, which probably most of your listeners may not have even heard of, but every cell phone and laptop computer has coltan in it. And several million people in the last few years in the Congo have been killed over coltan, because you and I and all of us in the G8 countries demand low—or at least we want to see our computers inexpensive and our cell phones inexpensive. And, of course, the companies that make these sell them on that basis, that "Oh, here, mine's $200 less than the other company." But in order to do that, these people in the Congo are being enslaved. The miners, the people mining coltan, they're being killed. There's these vast wars going on to provide us with cheap coltan.
Roughly 50,000 people die every single day from hunger or hunger-related diseases and curable diseases that they don't get the medicines for, simply because they're part of a system that demands that they put in long hours, and they get very, very low pay, so we can have things cheaper in this country. And the Congo is an incredibly potent example of that.
Yeah, wwe, you and I, look at them as defeats, perhaps, and certainly anybody who lost a child or a sibling or a spouse in these countries look at them as disasters, as defeats, but the corporations made a huge amount of money off Vietnam, the military industry, huge corporations, the construction companies. And, of course, they're doing it in a very, very big way in Iraq. So the corporatocracy, the people that are in fact insisting that our young men and women continue to go to Iraq and fight, they're making a tremendous amount of money. These are not failures for them; they're successes from a very strong economic standpoint.
the Israeli people, for the most part, are led to believe that they've been given this land as a payoff, basically, for the Holocaust, because they deserve to be recompensed. And, of course, the Holocaust was terrible, and they do deserve to be taken care of and recompensed and have stability.
I think the Israeli people have been terribly exploited in this process.
But the fact of the matter is, our having this military base in Israel has been a huge defense for us. It's been a place where we could really launch attacks, rely on. It's been our equivalent of the Crusaders' castles in the Middle East. And it's very, very sad. I think it's extremely sad for the Israeli people that they're caught up in all of this. I think it's extremely sad for the American people. It's extremely sad for the world that this is going on.
AMY GOODMAN: As we crisscross the globe, John Perkins, which is exaclty what you did in your years as an international consultant, having been groomed by the National Security Agency, but then becoming a top economist in an international consulting firm, you have also written books about Shamanism. You also write about Tibet. Where does Tibet fit into this picture?
JOHN PERKINS: Well, you know, I was just in Tibet a couple of years ago, and it was an interesting thing, because I took a group of about thirty people into Tibet with me as part of a non-profit organization. I was leading the trip. And some of these people had been in the Amazon with me, been to other places. And, of course, Tibet right now is—it's very depressing, because the Chinese presence is extremely strong, and you see how the Tibetan culture has been put down. And you're always aware that there's Chinese soldiers and spies all around you. And many of the people on the trip came to the realization, yeah, this terrible here. "Free Tibet," we all know about that, but the ones who had been with me on a trip to the Amazon, where the oil companies and our own military are doing the same things, said, "But doesn't this remind us of what we're doing in so much of the world?" And it's something we tend to forget.
We can all wave banners about "Free Tibet," which we should, but how about freeing the countries that are under our thumb, too? And certainly Tibet is not nearly—well, I hate to say it this way, because some people might disagree with me, but I think Iraq is in worse shape than Tibet is these days, although both of them are in pretty bad shape. But so, what we saw in Tibet is that same kind of model that we're implementing around the world. And yet, most Americans are not aware that we're doing it. They're aware that the Chinese are doing it, but not aware that we're doing it on actually a much bigger level than the Chinese are.
The Prophets Conference: Shamanic Journey to Mayaland - Shapeshifting a New World
with John Perkins and Llyn Roberts