The International Monetary Fund told Peru yesterday that if it does not clear up $75 million in past-due loan payments by mid-April, the country will be declared "ineligible" to borrow from the multinational agency.
The action by the IMF's executive board was harsher than the recommendation from the agency's staff, which suggested that the board merely schedule another review of Peru's arrears in 90 days and at that time, if the country has not brought itself up to date, set a date on which Peru would become ineligible.
Agency sources said the directors, who represent the 149 nations that make up the IMF, were upset both because Peruvian President Alan Garcia has refused to negotiate a new loan agreement with the international agency and because Peru, with about $1.5 billion in foreign exchange reserves, can afford to keep current its IMF debts.
About $200 million of Peru's $14 billion in foreign debt is with the IMF.
The IMF staff, including managing director Jacques de Larosiere, believed they detected a change in attitude on the part of Garcia, who last September stopped making any repayments to the IMF. In recent weeks Peru made tiny payments both to the IMF and to commercial banks. Peru owes commercial banks about $6 billion and is in arrears on principal and interest to its bank lenders by about $2.2 billion.
Monetary sources said that Peru had been expected to make another token payment to the IMF yesterday to show its good faith, but that the country refused to do so. Apparently the failure to make any further payments convinced the executive board to turn down the staff recommendation and adopt a stiffer approach.
A declaration of ineligibility is more a diplomatic than real sanction, since Peru is not able to borrow more money from the IMF both because it has no economic and loan agreements with the IMF and because it is in arrears on its repayment schedule.
Garcia, who took office last July, said he will limit Peru's yearly debt payments to 10 percent of its $3 billion in export revenue and that agencies from which Peru does expect to receive future loans will be the last to be repaid.
Peru refuses to negotiate a loan agreement with the IMF, and commercial banks generally decline to make new loans to debtor countries that are out of compliance with the IMF. As a result, banks and the IMF are at the end of the line for Peru's payments. Peru accumulated its IMF debt for several years, before it fell out of compliance with the economic program it had agreed to undertake.
Although Peru has paid its bank lenders only sporadically during the last several years, the country had remained current on its IMF payments until September.
A handful of countries, including Sudan and Liberia, have been declared ineligible by the IMF. Ineligibility does not mean a country is suspended from membership or that it cannot continue to try to negotiate a new loan agreement and economic program.
In Sudan's case, for example, the fund and the country are trying to develop a new economic program that would make Sudan eligible again to borrow.
The Peru that Gracia inherited in July was reeling from mismanagement, a heavy debt load, declining markets for its exports and heavy inflation.
Garcia immediately instituted a wage and price freeze to slow inflation, promised to cut federal spending and streamline the government.
But Garcia declined to negotiate with the IMF, alleging that the types of austerity programs the agency generally recommends would not be good for Peru. Generally, the IMF wants countries to slow their money growth and cut government spending to slow down inflation and reduce their need to borrow from abroad.
It also generally recommends that countries devalue their currencies to make their exports more competitive and their imports more expensive. Although the initial impact of a devaluation is inflationary, it permits countries to earn more dollars to meet their foreign obligations.
Some international observers are bewildered by Garcia's actions, especially since he instituted on his own many of the kinds of measures that might have won an IMF loan agreement and easier repayment terms and new money from bank lenders. Fresh outside loans generally allow a country to institute austerity measures more slowly than they otherwise would have to.
Garcia, for example, under heavy political pressure, announced a relaxation in the anti-inflation policy. He cut taxes and raised the minimum wage for non-union and state employes by 25 percent. The action, however, will make it difficult to bring the nation's budget into balance.
Peru relied on Argentina as a model for much of its anti-inflation program. But unlike Argentina, which made peace with the IMF last June, Garcia took tough measures but declined to deal with the IMF or the international banking community. Peruvian observers said that confronting the banks and the IMF plays well in highly nationalistic Peru.
Peru, like other debtors, has suffered from the decline in commodity prices in recent years. But Peru, with limited exports, has been harder hit than many and failed to share in the general boom that most Latin American countries experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Peru also has had to cope with an increasingly dangerous guerilla movement, the Shining Path. The guerillas for years confined their activities to rural Peru, but in recent months have made terrorist strikes in the capital, Lima.
Last Friday, a subdued Garcia announced in a television address that, because of increased terrorism in the capital city, Lima was being placed under a state of siege.
Many analysts think Peru's exchange rate is overvalued. That helps keep down the price of imported goods, but impedes Peru's ability to export.