12 September 2008

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon

While in Ethiopia earlier in the summer, we spent some time with a local doctor who ran a city health clinic for people living with, and at risk from, HIV and Aids. He had set up an NGO that funded autonomous collectives of sex workers throughout the country, and had helped to establish an organic farm outside of Addis Ababa that would provide many with a route out of poverty and sex work. We travelled around the countryside with him meeting with these collectives, and over lunch one day we got into a very lively discussion on globalisation, US empire building and the peccadilloes of one George W. Bush.

It seemed quite incongruous to be sitting by a lake in the Ethiopian highlands with a quite distinguished Ethiopian doctor in his late 50's, discussing the (alleged) cocaine habit of the current US President. Our doctor friend had been reading John Perkins' latest book, "The Secret History of the American Empire", which at that stage had been out for less than three months.

I had read Perkins' "Confession of an Economic Hitman" a few years ago, wherein he described his role on behalf of the World Bank (and others) in plundering Indonesia and other Asian nations, forcing them into crippling restructuring plans, selling off their natural resources to western (mostly American) companies, and driving whole generations into unrecoverable poverty. I found it interesting, but not shocking, I suppose I had a good idea that the kind of skulduggery described therein was commonplace (or maybe my innate cynicism always expects the worst of any politician/corporation/military/economist), but apparently the book was a hit and encouraged many others involved in the business of ultra-capitalism to come forward to Mr Perkins and confess all their sins.

As we discussed this over lunch what struck me (yet again) was the high level of awareness the majority of the world has about US politics and how it affects their lives, in stark contrast to the level of interest most American have about the same issues. Although Perkins' book was clearly aimed at educating his own countrymen, the book was enthusiastically picked up beyond the shores of the US by many eager both to see how their own leaders had been corrupted or overthrown by the US, or to add further weight to their belief in the disconnect between the words and actions of successive US administrations.

I picked up "The Secret History" last week and started reading it on the flight home, in my usual "read a book on the plane that is really going to anger and frustrate you so you are unable to get any sleep" manner, and stopped when I got to a section on conversations he had with a high level aide to President Luiz Silva in Brazil. One passage intrigued me enough to quote it here in its entirety:
[Silva's aide] "Surely you've heard the rumors about why Noriega was taken down and today rots in a U.S. prison."

[Perkins] "I've heard that he had cameras on Contadora Island." It was an infamous resort off Panama's coast, a "safe haven" where U.S. businessmen could treat politicians to every conceivable vice. I had visited - and used - Contradora several times during my EHM days.

"You heard who got caught by those cameras?"

"Rumors that George W. was photographed doing coke and having kinky sex during the time his father was president." There was a theory in Latin America that Noriega had used incriminating photos of the younger Bush and his cronies to convince the older Bush, the president, to side with the Panamanian administration on key issues. In retaliation, H.W. invaded Panama and hustled Noriega off to a Miami prison. The building that housed Noriega's confidential files had been incinerated by bombs; as a side effect more than two thousand innocent civilians were burned to death in Panama City that day in December 1989. Many people claimed this theory offered the only logical explanation for violently attacking a nation without an army and that posed no threat to the United States.

Perkins, "The Secret History of the American Empire", Plume, 2008, p132
I have always assumed that the invasion of Panama was an attempt to retain control over the Panama Canal, which the US had controlled directly until 1979, and indirectly under the Torrijos-Carter treaties until 1999. However the fact that the US made no (overt) move to prevent the Chinese taking control of the ports at either end of the canal (via the Hong Kong based company Hutchinson Whampoa) when they reverted to Panamanian control in 2000 always made me question the real reason for the invasion.

While I take every rumour like this with a container-load of salt, what struck me was the fact that two months ago I sat by a highland lake discussing a Latin American rumour about George W. Bush's (alleged) cocaine habit with a well educated Ethiopian doctor.

That, my friends, is the true essence of globalisation.

The Secret History of the American Empire - John Perkins


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