John Perkins’ New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

By Polly Cleveland

In 1946, when I was a year old, my father hung up his Navy uniform and joined the U.S. Foreign Service. He could have returned to a well-paid position at Borden Cheese, but he wanted to continue serving his country after World War II. First we went to Bucharest Romania (’47-49), then Paris (’49-52), then Sydney Australia (’53-56), then Bangkok Thailand (’56-58), with in between stays in Washington D.C. While I was in college, my dad served as chief economic officer in Belgrade Yugoslavia (’62-65). He then worked for the State Department until his retirement in 1970; his job included speaking on college campuses to defend the war in Vietnam. If he was disillusioned, he never openly let on—though he did mutter about how anti-Communist “know-nothings” in Congress made his job harder in Yugoslavia. Years later he commented on Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada (remember that, anyone?), “They must have found a couple of Communists under a bed.”

On reading John Perkins’ New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, I kept thinking what stories my father could have told. Perkins began in 1971 as an economic consultant— “economic hit man”— with the engineering firm, MAIN, travelling to Indonesia, Panama, Colombia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. His job was to convince leaders to undertake wildly overambitious infrastructure projects that would enrich them and big U.S. engineering firms like Bechtel. In most cases, the projects would fail and leave nations beholden to U.S. banks or the World Bank.  Saudi Arabia was a special case; the flood of dollars from the new OPEC cartel would purchase both sophisticated infrastructure like desalinization plants and U.S. military protection against insurgents. Leaders who refused to cooperate with such plans would be picked off by CIA-supported “jackals”. Thus the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran (1953); the Jacobo Árbenz coup in Guatemala (1954); the Salvador Allende coup and murder in Chile (1973); the mysterious airplane explosions that killed Jaime Roldós in Ecuador and Omar Torrijos in Panama (1981); the overthrow and murder of Maurice Bishop in Grenada (1983); the bloody invasion and capture of Manuel Noriega in Panama (1989). Somehow Fidel Castro in Cuba successfully dodged dozens of assassination attempts.

The economic hit man/ jackal strategy of debt and fear was a deliberate U.S. policy to counter influence of the Soviet Union. Perkins relates a story from a 1975 dam-building project he directed in Colombia. Guerillas confronted a Colombian engineer at the dam site, firing AK-47s into the air and at his feet, and handing him a letter. The letter read: “We, who work every day just to survive, swear on the blood of our ancestors that we will never allow dams across our rivers. We are simple Indians and mestizos, but we would rather die than stand by as our land is flooded. We warn our Colombian brothers: stop working for the construction companies.” Perkins lectured the terrified engineer; did that sound like a letter a farmer would write? He slammed his fist on the desk; did farmers with AK-47s make sense? And who invented the AK-47?

In a fit of conscience, Perkins quit MAIN in 1980. But he continued as an energy entrepreneur and consultant for another twenty years, while becoming increasingly involved in projects to help embattled natives in the Amazon. In 2005 he published Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, an immediate bestseller. In the new updated version, he focuses on how the debt-and-fear strategy is now at work all over the world, in developed as well as less-developed countries. For example, many local governments in the United States have been suckered into building public-private toll roads (see here and here and here), all of which eventually failed, sticking the governments with poorly constructed roads and piles of debt.

My father died in 2008, sharp to the end. What did he know and live with? I once asked him did he know how the CIA collaborated with drug traffickers in Thailand and Central America. “Of course!”, he said, “You can’t be choosy about your friends in a dirty business.” In retirement he called the Vietnam war a terrible mistake, but did he consider resigning when the students booed his pro-war speeches? I never thought to ask him about U.S. support for right-wing ethnic nationalists in former Yugoslavia, surely a major factor in the break-up and civil wars starting 1991.  I wonder what he would think of Venezuela today. Despite the country’s vast oil reserves, the socialist government established by Hugo Chávez seems to be collapsing, surely heading for a right-wing coup. Are the food riots and blackouts just due to mismanagement and the drop in oil prices, or have the jackals arrived to look for communists under beds?

The Mouse That Wouldn’t Die: How a Lack of Public Funding Holds Back a Promising Cancer Treatment

Spring 1999. “Professor Cui, this mouse didn’t get cancer. Should I get rid of him?” It was a standard experiment in Zheng Cui’s lab at Wake Forest University, North Carolina: Inject inbred mice with cancer cells, not to study cancer, but to produce antibodies for a lipid experiment. “There must have been a mistake,” said Cui, “Inject him again.” Two weeks later, still no cancer. “Try again with a higher dose!” Still no cancer. No cancer even at a million times the lethal dose. Cui decided to breed the mutant mouse.

My husband, Tom Haines, and Chinese-born Zheng Cui are long-time colleagues in lipid research. When we visited his lab in 2001, Cui showed us stacks of cages holding hundreds of little brown cancer-resistant mice. He had already worked out the genetics of the mice, and bred the resistance trait into a second variety of lab mice. He had also discovered that while young mice don’t get cancer at all when injected, older mice get cancer which then spontaneously disappears! The mechanism remained a mystery.

In fall 2002, my husband introduced Cui to leading cancer researcher Lloyd J. Old, director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and founder of the New York Cancer Research Institute. Old was enthusiastic. As a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Old submitted Cui’s article on spontaneous regression of advanced cancer in mice  to the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), where it appeared in March 2003. Cui also published a personal account of his discovery.

With support from Old’s Cancer Research Institute, Cui continued experiments on the mice. He injected white blood cells from cancer-resistant mice into non-resistant mice with tumors. Amazing! The tumors shrank and disappeared. More experiments revealed what was killing the tumors: granulocytes, the largest class of white blood cells. Granulocytes look speckled under a microscope because they’re packed with little torpedo-shaped particles. They home in on invading bacteria and inject the torpedoes, which then blow holes in the bacterial membrane. It appeared that granulocytes were doing the same to cancer cells. The cancer-resistant mice showed that some individuals have super-aggressive granulocytes. With Old as a coauthor, Cui’s second PNAS article, on transferable anticancer immunity appeared in March 2006.

Cui could then have settled into a successful career studying cancer-resistant mice. Instead, he took an audacious step: If some mice have super-resistance to cancer, he proposed, perhaps some humans do too. In fact, perhaps transfusions of granulocytes from super-resistant humans could treat cancer patients! Preliminary lab tests on human granulocytes indicated some people are indeed super-resistant.

Cui began to seek funding to test the transfusion theory. He already knew support wouldn’t come easily; blood transfusions are old technology and so can’t be patented. The pharmaceutical industry of course would take no interest. And as Cui found, clinical oncologists resist anything outside the usual treatments, even when they have nothing more to offer their patients. Finally, in 2008, he obtained a grant and FDA approval for a clinical trial at Wake Forest. But shortly before the trial was to start, the university cancelled it without explanation.

Nothing daunted, Cui raised money from private donors and got FDA approval for a clinical trial at the South Florida Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Institute, starting in 2009. The patients must all have terminal metastatic cancer, with no further treatment options. The trial costs average over $140,000 per patient. Granulocyte donors are healthy young students from nearby Florida Atlantic University. The study must follow an elaborate FDA protocol and must include 29 participants before any long-term evaluation can be released. Cui also set up a trial at a location in China.

When we spoke to Cui over a year ago, he had good news and bad news. The good news: The Florida patients had had a very encouraging short-term response to the treatment; the transfused granulocytes effectively killed cancer cells. The bad news: His wife was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma with massive metastases to all her major organs (lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys) and was given months to live. She had run out of conventional treatment options after partial surgery and chemotherapy. But he planned to take her to China for treatment at his other trial site in March 2013.

Two months ago, good news and bad news again. Good news: we met with Cui and his wife. She looked terrific. To the astonishment of her doctors, her condition appears completely stable after 14 months, with no further treatment of any sort. She told us the transfusions gave her a high fever, but no other side effects. Bad news: In Florida, the institute has so far recruited only 20 of the 29 participants required to complete the trial. With Lloyd Old’s death in 2011, private funding is drying up. At Wake Forest, due to cutbacks in NIH funding and other problems, the university faces severe financial difficulties; Cui’s research lab is down to one assistant. And in China, the trial has become stuck in a bureaucratic bog. Cui still isn’t giving up.

So here’s the story of a heroic individual bucking the system. But what a system! Pharmaceutical companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and patent drugs that might prolong cancer patients’ lives a few months or years. Clinical oncologists make a good living treating patients with these drugs; they regard alternatives with extreme skepticism. How then can a promising unorthodox treatment get a decent trial? At the least, Zheng Cui has given us a poster mouse for public funding of basic scientific and medical research.

–Polly Cleveland