U.S. and Latin American officials today were close to agreement on a joint statement on the Latin American debt crisis that falls far short of committing the United States to any specific actions to help hard-pressed debtor nations.
Several Latin American delegates to a special conference on debt sponsored by the Organization of American States said they had hoped to convince the United States to pressure commercial banks and the International Monetary Fund to give debtor countries easier terms.
Delegates also had hoped to get the United States to agree that the inability of Latin American countries to repay their debts on time was almost entirely due to factors beyond their control, such as world recession and high interest rates.
But the draft document, while stating that external causes are the main reason countries are in trouble, says internal policies in these countries played "an important role in bringing about the present crisis."
The five-day conference on debt marks the first time that an official U.S. delegation has met with Latin American officials to discuss the debt crisis on a regional basis. Latin American nations have had several such conferences among themselves, and plan several more.
The region has foreign debt totaling more than $300 billion, although about 75 percent of it is owed by just four countries--Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela.
The U.S. stand, which has not changed substantially, has been that the problems are specific to each country and that there is no common solution to the debt problem.
Nevertheless, the document that delegates were working on today--a watered-down version of one submitted Monday by Ecuador--acknowledges that Latin America needs lower general interest rates, more foreign capital and greater access to U.S. markets if it is to pull itself out of its economic problems.
The draft statement also acknowledges the efforts of the International Monetary Fund and the United States to help, but says that the international assistance is so far inadequate. If that statement stays in the final document, according to one Latin American official, it could be an important step toward getting more official U.S. aid.
But a U.S. official said that the statement is merely general and that Congress, which would have to approve a major aid initiative for the debtor countries, is hardly likely to do so when unemployment in the United States is high and the federal deficit is large.
"What they wanted, at least in their dreams, was for us to bail them out. What we were willing to say is that there is a debt problem, not entirely of their own making, that is serious and that we will help if and when we can," said a top U.S. official.
The so-called technical delegates to the five-day conference are expected to approve the draft document tonight and submit it to a ministerial session that begins Thursday.
The document that is being drafted this evening makes no mention of the commercial banks, which hold the biggest share of Latin American debt. Bankers have been worried that the special conference might be the first step toward the formation of a debtors' cartel that would try to dictate repayment terms to the lenders.
But while many of the nations have grown disenchanted with the high interest rates the banks have charged to refinance maturing loans and make new ones, few nations believe that a cartel is either feasible or desirable.
Several delegates said privately, however, that they wanted to make the point that not only are interest rates in general too high, but that the interest rates being charged on the new lending are too high.
One Latin American delegate said he thought the document was too cautious. What several Latin American countries were looking for, according to one U.S. delegate, was strong rhetoric that could be used for domestic purposes. Except for Mexico, the ruling parties in the major debtor countries are having serious political difficulties. Host Venezuela, which holds national elections in December, is particularly concerned that the conference be judged a "success."
But the United States insisted that much of the strong rhetoric be toned down if the nations expected it to sign the document.