"We have an expression in my country that goes, 'It is neither lemonade nor wine,' " said a Peruvian delegate to the special hemispheric conference on Latin American debt held here last week.
"That's what I'd say about this conference. It wasn't all we hoped for but it wasn't bad either."
What Latin American nations got was a sympathetic ear from the United States and a joint statement that was supportive but promised nothing concrete.
The statement characterized the Latin American debt load (about $320 billion) as a serious, potentially deadly stumbling block to Latin American development, and conceded that the inability of the countries to repay their debts on time is not, for the most part, their fault. Recession and high interest rates are the biggest problems debtor countries face, the report said.
But the mood of most Latin American delegates at the conclusion of the five-day conference was subdued, for the joint communique did not commit the United States, or Latin America for that matter, to any new actions.
What debtor nations did not get was any hint of U.S. willingness to use its muscle to make the commercial bankers or the International Monetary Fund go easier on the debtors. Nor did they get a U.S. acknowledgement that anyone but the debtor nations is primarily responsible for solving their problems.
Delegates say the Latin American debts could overwhelm the world economy and argue that responsibility for them must be shared by debtor nations, creditor nations and commercial banks.
The United States says it will still provide emergency assistance and indirect help by fighting inflation and fostering economic recovery that will revive markets for Latin American goods.
But if Latin America wants to get the benefit of lower bank "spreads" (the difference between what a bank pays for its money and what it lends it out for), Treasury Undersecretary Beryl Sprinkel said, they must follow the IMF's often strict belt-tightening procedures and bring their spending policies in line with reality. Many delegates resented that admonition, noting privately that the United States is running a deficit of $200 billion.
It was conceded by some delegates here that much of the Latin American rationale for this conference--as well as for several others that have not included the United States--was to find a forum that would relieve the governments from much of the responsibility for excessive borrowing and spending practices.
The decades-long Latin American boom has gone bust, and politicians were anxious to find someone or something to blame, it was explained.
Delegates do find it heartening that the United States is willing to agree that "external factors"--high rates and worldwide recession--are the chief culprits, however.
"Why should we have to pay because Mr. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker decides U.S. inflation is too high" and sends interest rates soaring to record heights, asked economist Raul Sosa Rodriguez, a member of the Venezuelan delegation.
Counters a U.S. delegate, "How can Latin America expect to be shielded from the same interest rates that consumers, businesses and governments around the rest of the world must face?"
But the Latin American politicians' fears go further. They point to the danger of social and political turmoil if Latin American economies continue to stagnate.
The debtor nations have had to reduce spending, cut back vital imports and raise prices for essential consumer goods to make sure they have enough money to pay their debts.
Brazil, for example, the biggest debtor with foreign loans of about $90 billion, must use more than 50 percent of its export earnings just to pay the interest on its foreign debts. That leaves little to pay for imports or to invest in new projects, not to mention pay any of the principal of the debt.
Because of sharp population growth, most Latin American nations need to keep their economies expanding rapidly merely to prevent much of the populace from slipping deeper into poverty. The specter of the social unrest that characterizes Central America was raised repeatedly by delegates to the conference, which was sponsored by the Organization of American States.
Mexico's deputy finance minister, Francisco Suarez Davila, said in an interview that his nation has weathered the worst of its problems due to belt-tightening. But other nations face the real possibility of either right-wing or left-wing unrest or the seizure of political power by intensely nationalistic groups willing to repudiate the debts if "economic conditions do not improve soon," Suarez said.
So far, the administration dismisses most of these scenarios as little more than justifications by government officials who do not want to take the political heat of "adjusting" their economies.
But the Latin nations will have more opportunities to persuade the United States that their debt problems must be taken more seriously.
The OAS's economic and social council will discuss the issue again next month in Paraguay. The United States will be represented there, too.
The Latin nations have held several regional meetings on the topic and will hold more. Latin American heads of state will discuss the crisis at a summit later this year.
A top U.S. diplomat who believes the U.S. position is fundamentally correct said he nevertheless is worried that the debtor nations may let a purely Latin organization like SELA (the Latin American Economic System) take the lead.
SELA has generally played a minor role as a multilateral organization, but its economists prepared the preliminary position paper for the Caracas conference.
The SELA paper that provided the initial draft of the conference communique was much sterner in its indictment of U.S. policies and generally absolved the Latin nations of any responsibility for their plight. Its tone and much of its substance was changed at the OAS meeting, largely at the behest of the United States.