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After Haiti: A Conversation with John Perkins

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When the earthquake struck Haiti last January, the first person I wanted to hear from was John Perkins. Several years before Naomi Klein coined the phrase "disaster capitalism," John Perkins' first-person account Confessions of an Economic Hitman described very clearly how US economic interests set about exploiting crises in third-world nations in order to gain control of them.

I did finally get to speak to John in March, and our conversation ranged from Haiti to US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, to a recent film that collates material from his books on this topic. Perkins, for readers not familiar with his work, is what is called in Hollywood a "hyphenate." He doesn't have one area of expertise that he can call on; he has several, if not many of them, and can speak to economics, to geopolitics, to culture clashes and compatibilities. In our brief conversation, he moved among these seamlessly, now describing the big picture, now zooming in on fine detail.

Haiti. The part of our conversation that dealt with Haiti centered on two points: One, the massive amount of American aid now being moved into Haiti will likely not benefit Haitians, not small farmers, small businessmen in tourism or fisheries or other kinds of entrepreneurs. The funds will go to multinationals who are seizing this moment as an opportunity to buy investments in this devastated nation. And two, what Amy Goodman called the "militarization" of Haiti in the aftermath of the quake sends a troubling message that reverberates throughout the region.

Long term aid. Shortly after the quake, President Obama called on Bill Clinton and on George Bush to spearhead a relief fund for Haiti. It's a good bet that most Americans took the gesture at face value, as the current president calling on his immediate predecessors to step up and help one of our regional neighbors in their hour of need. It's likely that few of our countrymen know that our own government had a direct hand in the latest undermining, not only of Haitian democracy but also the Haitian economy and so, the infrastructure that might have helped this people respond to their own emergency.

As John noted in a January 21 blog entry at Huffington Post, the aid now flowing into Haiti for long-term aid will not for the most part aid Haitians:

"We are encouraged to believe that USAID, the World Bank, and other institutions are truly philanthropic, there to serve the best interests of the people and the country. However, the reality is that, in previous cases -- such as the Asian tsunami -- much of this aid is employed to help huge multinational companies gain a strangle-hold on resources (including cheap labor) and markets. Instead of helping local fisherman, farmers, restaurant, and bed and breakfast owners rebuild their devastated businesses, the money is invested in projects that benefit the Krafts, Chiquitas, Monsantos, Marriotts, and big box restaurant chains of the world" (The Tremor Felt Around the World)..

A direct consequence of this mass of capital flowing into Haiti but not to Haitians is that local social movements are undermined. John compared the situation in Haiti now to that of the independence movement in Ache, Indonesia after the tsunami, a movement itself flattened by the tsunami of foreign influence dominating the political landscape in the aftermath of the natural disaster.

Militarization. When the United States took control of the airport and sent thousands of troops into Haiti, there were protests from France, Italy and Brazil. The immediate objection was that US military flights were being prioritized over humanitarian supplies and personnel. There seemed to be a brief tug of war between the UN peacekeeping force, our State Department and a few of the larger humanitarian missions.

Now, I don't remember anyone raising the question if this immediate taking of command and control by the US was a response to Aristide's public announcement from exile that he wanted to return to Haiti to help the nation respond to the quake's devastation. According to Randall Robinson, Aristide was told not to return to this hemisphere when he was ousted by a coalition of American, Canadian and French forces. In any case, the question of Aristide returning was put to rest as soon as American forces took control of that airfield. And Haiti was left in the hands of precisely the government the economic powers that be wanted in place.

Perkins pointed out that the Pentagon moving thousands of troops into Haiti sends a message to the whole region. He noted that the 4th Fleet has been remobilized to operate in the region, and that the Pentagon is acquiring seven new bases in Colombia. This build-up of US military presence is seen as saber rattling by regional leaders; creates fearfulness, is experienced as an insult to autonomy. As someone who has himself been threatened, Perkins emphasized how threats profoundly shape not only public opinion but diplomatic relations among nations, that they "blow back." To underscore this point, Perkins suggested that the reason Chinese investment is more welcomed in the region than American investment is precisely because the Chinese have no military presence shadowing their business dealings.

Apology of an Economic Hitman, the film. I asked John about a film version of his memoirs now being shown on LinkTv. The film is described as a blend of noire and documentary and it combines re-enactments of his activity in Latin America while he was a "hitman," file footage from that period that illustrates American investment in those countries, as well as segments with John himself in conversation. I wanted to ask him about two segments in particular, one where he is speaking with Martha Roldos Bucaram, daughter of the assassinated Ecudoran president Jaime Roldos, and another of John addressing a large audience in Quito about his activities in Ecuador before the hit on Roldos's presidency and what it meant to him, to Roldos and to the Ecuadoran people.

When I asked John about Martha Roldos' appearance in the movie, he told me that after "Confessions" came out, Martha Roldos contacted him and flew to Miami to meet with him. Roldos, now a popular politician in her own right, was a teenager when her father was killed. It is a measure of Perkins' commitment to his project that this accomplished woman, who lost her father long ago, not only made her peace with him but is now his friend and chose to participate in this film.

A real center of power in the film -- a scene in a theater run by the Casa de la cultura in Quito -- turns out to have been unscripted. John had done a radio show that morning and had planned a short shoot in this theater with a few people behind him while he spoke to the camera.

As it happened, somehow word of the shoot got out and hundreds of people came to the theater not only to listen to him, but to confront him. At this moment in the film, the Quito audience is entirely engaged, at times, hostile. There are catcalls and mutterings. Perkins says someone called out "John Perkins for President of Gringolandia." At times, the group is quiet and tense. That this American is standing there, owning up to his part in a tragic chapter of their history registers visibly and profoundly. It is a powerful moment of apology and a step forward toward reconciliation with the facts of a painful past. And Perkins remarkably pushes through that moment, moving on to lay out for the assembled community (in unscripted fluent Spanish) how the current Ecuadorian president and his government are again under attack by the same powerful economic interests.

I asked John what he was working on at the moment. (A better question might have been, what are you not working on right now?) John has a full schedule of writing and speaking here, in Latin America, Asia and Europe. He gives seminars on international business practices, on sustainability and also on global and personal transformation. He blogs at the Huffington Post as well as at his own site, and has a column in Correo del Orinoco, a Latin American publication. The NewYork Times best selling author's book on the global economic meltdown, Hoodwinked, was released in November.

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Elizabeth Ferrari is a San Francisco author and activist.

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