THERE IS only one way that the indebted Latin American countries can pay their creditors, and that is through economic growth and expanding trade. To get the Latin economies growing steadily again is no doubt easier said than done -- particularly if their North American export market continues to slow down. But nearly all the Latin countries went through a drastic recession after the flow of foreign loans slowed in 1982. It is clear to just about everybody, including the bankers, that these countries can carry their pres debts over the years ahead only if standards of living there recover and begin to rise again.
The newly inaugurated president of Peru, Alan Garcia Perez, declared the other day that his country will limit its debt service payments to 10 percent of its export earnings over the next 12 months. Is that an inflammatory declaration of defiance of the international banks? Not necessarily. The interest payments on Peru's debt came to slightly less than 11 percent of export earnings in 1983, according to the World Bank. Since then the interest due has risen, but the amount actually paid has apparently fallen. The creditors haven't made an issue of it. They have been waiting to see what would happen. They know that the country's economy has fallen into a degree of decline and turmoil that the term recession hardly begins to describe.
While Peru owes a lot of money to foreigners, by no means all of it is owed to banks. Of that $13.5 billion debt, about half is official -- meaning that it was lent by other governments or by international agencies such as the World Bank. Nearly all of that debt carries interest rates far below the banks', and much of it includes provisions for grace periods. As for the bank debt, less than half of it is owed to American banks -- and that's typical of Latin debt generally. Most of the bank money came from Europe and Japan. While the American banks' loans are very substantial, it is inaccurate to think of the quarrels over these loans as a simple collision between American bankers and Latin politicians.
Debtors and creditors have one compelling interest in common -- to get the Latin economies expanding again. There are cases, like Peru's, in which the creditors are going to have to be patient. But the return to growth does require good faith. It requires that the indebted countries avoid default, for their own sake as well as the creditors', because default cuts off all foreign credit immediately. Without credit no economy can develop.
Peru is now struggling to control a flight of capital from the country. For both borrowers and lenders, circumstances could hardly be more difficult. For Peru, as for all the Latin countries, the standard by which all debt management is to be judged is whether it promises to lead back to economic stability and rising prosperity.