by John Perkins
Berrett-Koehler publishers, copyright 2004, 225 pages, $24.95

To the millions of anti-globalization activists around the world who have been calling for a cancelation of Third World debt for several years, one would think that this book would come as a tremendous shot in the arm if not the ultimate “coup de grace” for their argument. In it, John Perkins makes the extraordinary admission that for years he worked for a company that deliberately falsified financial estimates in order to justify loans made to Third World countries for extravagant infrastructure projects. The contracts went to American companies who realized enormous profits but the supposed benefits to these poor countries never materialized and they found themselves deep in debt and thus vulnerable to IMF and World Bank control. While it is not too difficult for us to imagine multi national corporations “cooking the books”, paying bribes, or inflating estimates of one sort or another, Perkins takes it a step further and it is a huge step. He claims that suckering Third World countries into debt dependence was the deliberate, conscious policy of the U.S. government in a shadowy collaboration with U.S. corporations. Anti-globalization activists take heart, victory is just around the corner!! But wait, there’s a flaw.

All the ingredients are here for a powerful indictment of U.S. foreign policy except that it lacks the real nuts and bolts details and back up documentation that separate strong works, that can be used by activists to make their case, from just more speculative opinion pieces. What good is it that Perkins is convinced that the CIA engineered the death of President Omar Torrijos of Panama, making it look like an airplane accident, if he does nothing more than recount a conversation he had with Torrijos shortly before his death in which the populist president conveyed his suspicions over U.S. intentions for him because he wouldn’t play ball with them.

Perkins is playing it very safe in this book. Despite all of the startling allegations, no politician or businessman is going to worry about the publication of this book. No investigations will be inspired by it because it’s too thin on hard substance with so few facts to investigate. It is important to understand that all of the actors and activities he describes are always shielded by mechanisims of “plausible deniability”. The principle flaw of this book is that it doesn’t do anything to pierce through those mechanisms. I personally don’t believe Perkins is dishonest, I believe what he says is true, nor do I think he’s just trying to get a risk-free shocking bestseller out there, cashing in on the wave of “political insiders tell all” bestsellers a la Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neil, or Joe Wilson. So what is this book really about?

The title says it all. It’s a confessional, which for me is the second major flaw in the book. It is Perkins himself that is at the center of this book. It’s his story. We learn about his boyhood, his relationship with his parents, his marraige, his divorce, his affairs. He spends a huge amount of time on his own personal conflicts, his doubts, his weaknesses which led him into playing the game and which he openly and admirably regrets. It is his inner evolution ending in catharsis that provides all the forward motion here. I may be jaded and I may have opened the book with my own preconceived expectations of what it ought to have been, but I can’t help feeling that something is missing here and that Perkins, who seems like a personable enough guy if you’ve heard him interviewed on Democracy Now! or on various other TV and radio shows when he was doing the circuit last year, has been a bit too self indulgent. Where’s the beef? It seems to have gotten lost somewhere en route to redemption.

Russel Branca,
New York