Latin American governments are feeling increased political pressure for new financial arrangements that would ease their foreign debt burden and allow more rapid economic growth after three years of austerity, according to regional economic specialists.
A consensus is forming in the region that the measures, adopted since the debt problem emerged as a major issue in 1982, have been only partially successful, said these specialists, including Mexican officials and U.S. banking sources. More debtor countries are considering of some kind of limit on their interest payments, or an international mechanism to subsidize those payments, the sources said.
The growing dissatisfaction was evident in two developments last week. Peru's new president, Alan Garcia, announced that his country would limit its debt payments to 10 percent of export earnings in the coming year, and participants at a Cuban-sponsored conference -- most of them unofficial and mostly on the political left -- called for a region-wide suspension of debt payments.
So far, most of the public calls for change have come from Latin America's leftist intellectual community, which is vocal but politically weak. Peru's action indicated that some of the region's smaller debtors might take positions that the larger ones could feel compelled to adopt or lose face at home.
"The problem is that the issue has become more political now. People are saying that those who wanted radical measures, such as a capping of interest payments, were right," a senior American bank executive said.
Latin America's debtors generally have sought to avoid confrontation with U.S., West European and Japanese banks and government agencies that hold the region's $350 billion debt. The banks' nightmare of an OPEC-style "debtors' cartel" has not materialized, as the debtors have accepted the banks' position that each country's debt should be handled individually.
The three largest debtors -- Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, responsible for almost three-quarters of the debt total -- have publicly rebuffed President Fidel Castro's proposal for a moratorium on debt payments. The three did not send official delegations to the Havana session. They also have rejected or shied away from Peru's unilateral action, which was viewed by most sources as a populist publicity stunt.
"I don't think that Peru wants to declare itself an outlaw in the international financial community. It wants to provoke the banks, and get better terms later on," said a senior United Nations official who monitors Latin American economies.
But the debtors increasingly are searching for structural changes in the way that the debt is handled, primarily because debt service payments are siphoning off so much money that domestic economic growth is sharply reduced, according to Latin and U.S. sources.
"The mainstream of opinion in Latin America is very reasonable and very conservative. It recognizes that the debts should continue to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but it also is definitely saying that relief is needed," the U.N. official said. "So far, the banks are saying that they're willing to listen," he added.
The problem of continuing economic stagnation is behind much of the discontent. Economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean is likely to slow this year from the already low rate of 2.4 percent in 1984, according to the Center for Latin American Monetary Studies here.
"There is a slowdown or a recession in almost all of the countries of Latin America," said a senior economist at the center, which is a research organization set up by the region's central banks. The region's economies shrank in 1982 and 1983 by rates of 1.1 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively.
The regional recession and subsequent slow growth were the result largely of restrictive economic policies adopted under plans drawn up with the International Monetary Fund to curtail inflationary spending. In exchange for the austerity measures, the governments have been able to reschedule, or postpone paying, the bulk of the principle on their debts. The banks agreed to wait for their principle in order to be sure of receiving the interest.
This arrangement has succeeded in buying time for all parties. The region's debt problem has not led to a major financial collapse of a Latin government, or a major lender bank.
But the governments have been unhappy to discover that meeting the interest payments alone is a major drain on their economies. Last year the region paid the banks $38.5 billion in interest and $12.9 billion in principle, according to the Center for Latin American Monetary Studies. The total of $51.4 billion of debt service payments was equal to 40 percent of their earnings from exports, according to the center.
Several Latin economists said the region's governments had overestimated the degree to which the U.S. economic recovery would pull Latin America out of its slump. The U.S. expansion was "selective" in that it helped Western Europe and the Far East much more than Latin America, they said.
To obtain more funds to finance domestic growth, the Latin governments now would like to be relieved somehow of paying a part of their interest payments. One proposal is to convert a part of the interest payments to principle, meaning that the banks would grant new loans to the countries to cover some of the interest. Another possibility would be to have the IMF or World Bank set up a "rediscount window" to pay a part of the countries' interest.
Finally, the countries might take a lead from Peru and seek to limit their debt payments to a percentage of their export earnings. They would be likely to agree to pay a higher percentage than Peru's 10 percent, however, as most proposals in the past have been in the range of 20 to 25 percent.
Mexican Finance Secretary Jesus Silva Herzog said formulas must be found that permit "a reasonable equilibrium between the indispensable growth that our country requires, and the fulfillment of commitments with international banks."