Latin American leaders are debating whether to ask industrial nations to a special conference on resolving the region's massive foreign debt load despite the opposition of the United States to such a meeting.
Foreign and finance ministers of 11 debtor nations -- the so-called Cartagena Group -- last September asked for multilateral talks with industrial nations to seek changes in the way they must repay their $360 billion in foreign loans, which the debtor nations say are strangling their economy.
The United States promptly rejected the call, and a week later, at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund, then-Treasury secretary Donald Regan proposed instead that the debt question be discussed at the IMF's interim meeting in April.
The Reagan administration has consistently argued that Latin American debt problems should be handled on a country-by-country basis and that no coordinated solution -- one that undoubtedly would involve Western governments subsidizing some of the repayments -- is acceptable.
The Treasury has said it opposes any meeting with the Cartagena Group and that any discussion of the debt should take place within established forums such as the IMF or the United Nations.
Falling interest rates and continued economic growth in the United States have alleviated some of the pressures on the debtor countries since they last met in September. But deputies in both the finance and foreign ministries -- who are meeting here in preparation for a full ministerial conference that begins Thursday -- said they are skeptical that the April IMF talks will have any meaning.
Nevertheless, several delegates said there also is a reluctance to challenge Washington overtly. They said the United States would be a crucial player in any eventual relief and there is little desire to alienate the Reagan administration.
Furthermore, one delegate said countries such as Mexico and Brazil, which appear to be recovering -- having adopted the conventional belt-tightening measures advocated by the IMF and the United States -- may be reluctant to involve themselves in a political confrontation that might be counterproductive for them.
"If we call the conference and issued an invitation to the United States and they refused, the results could be disastrous," one delegate said.
Another said that the groundwork might be laid for such a conference here, but that the actual call for a meeting would be delayed until after the interim committee meeting in April. If the IMF forum appeared to have promise, then no conference would be scheduled, he said.
Most Latin American debtors have undertaken stiff austerity measures designed to lessen their need to borrow, to cut their inflation rates and to move them back to economic growth, although at a pace that is less vigorous than achieved before the debt crisis struck in 1982.
The biggest nations -- Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela (which does not have an IMF-approved program) -- have accumulated large export surpluses that provide them the dollars they need to repay their debts, and they have resumed economic growth.
Other nations such as Chile have undertaken IMF programs but remain mired in difficulty because they cannot sell enough abroad.
All Latin American officials say, however, that whatever policies they undertake can be undermined by economic policies adopted in industrial nations, especially the United States. They say that is the basis of their call for a multilateral meeting.
For example, shortly after the ministers had their first meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, last June, interest rates in the United States began a swift climb. Rising rates increased the interest burden that debtors must bear and forced them to divert hard-won dollars from buying needed imports or financing development.
For example, every one-percentage-point rise in rates forces Mexico and Brazil each to pay $700 million more in interest.
There seems to be surprisingly little animosity directed at the commercial banks that have made most of the loans and end up collecting the higher interest.
The banks consistently have eased repayment terms for the debtors. "The banks say 'we're at our limit,' and they may be right," said one delegate from a foreign ministry.
When the Cartagena group had its first meeting, some observers thought the meeting could be a first step toward formation of a debtors club that would negotiate jointly with the banks and with the industrial nations.
So far, however, the interests of individual countries have been different enough to forestall any joint action beyond rhetoric. Suggestions that nations cap the amount of export earnings they will devote to paying interest on the debt have not been embraced by the Cartagena group -- which includes all major debtor nations.