Latin American debt crisis eats away at region's standard of living

Latin America's economic distress is worsening. Virtually every indicator points to such a decline. But the focus of concern over the problem may be shifting.

While the region's inability to pay off its $360 billion foreign debt has drawn world attention over the past two years, there is now a new worry: the dramatic fall in standards of living in most countries of the hemisphere to early 1970 levels.

''What this implies for the political and social peace of Latin America,'' said a United States banker attending the annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), ''can only be suggested. But it is likely to mean more unrest, for people in Latin America are being pinched.''

Two examples of that pinch:

* Gross domestic product fell by 3 percent in 1983.

* Per capita income slipped 6 percent during the same year.

Both statistics are included in an IADB report issued just before the annual gathering last week in Punta del Este, the Uruguayan beach resort that so often has been host to IADB sessions.

Negative growth rates are not new to Latin America. Argentina has experienced them for a number of years, as have countries along South America's west coast. But now the trend is becoming area-wide. Hardest hit in 1983 were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and a number of the Central American countries.

In Argentina, a gross domestic product drop of 6 percent last year is reported in a recent government document. Some officials privately suggest the decline may have been larger.

Brazil, South America's biggest country, which often recorded annual growth rates of about 10 percent in the past decade, experienced a 2 percent drop in 1983, according to preliminary estimates.

Personal incomes were off in both those nations: in Argentina by 8 percent per capita, and in Brazil by 7 percent.

In addition, traditionally high underemployment rates in most of hemisphere countries have now been compounded by ominous increases in unemployment, particularly in urban areas.

In Brazil, according to government estimates released almost simultaneously with the IADB report, unemployment is now raging at 20 percent, although some Brazilians put the figure at 35 percent. There are heavy concentrations of the jobless people in the slums of big cities like Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.

Unemployment is also taking a toll on Mexicans. A report issued by the Mexican government in early March said 14 percent of Mexicans are jobless. Unofficial estimates, however, suggest unemployment could be closer to 20 percent.

As ominous as these statistics may prove, they are an indication of the downward trend in the hemisphere's economy, which the IADB report emphasizes. Those attending the IADB meeting agree that 1983 was the Latin American economy's worst year since the era of World War II.

Much of the talk centers on what this implies for the region, including tentative discussion about the threat of social unrest.

''This perhaps should not seem surprising,'' commented an IADB spokesman.

''After all, almost all indicators put out by the bank and other organizations point to a significant drop in the region's economy in the past couple of years, a factor which affects the average Latin American a lot more than the global debt issue.''

But mention of potential unrest is often carried on in muted language - ''almost as if the problem will go away if it is not mentioned,'' said the IADB spokesman.

Privately, many of those attending the IADB meeting wonder if time is not running out in the effort to deal with the region's economic problems.

In public, however, they continue to look for ways to slow, if not halt, the economic slide. But they have so far failed to come up with solutions that a majority of those present can support.

Antonio Ortiz Mena, the Mexican who has served as bank president for the past decade, suggested that commercial banks, especially those in the US, continue to lend money to Latin America - but at lower interest rates and at extended repayment periods. Some Latin Americans agree with that idea, but a lot fewer than some observers expected.

Argentina last week was recipient of a variation of such a deal. Four Latin countries - Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil - announced they would help make a short-term low-interest loan of $400 million to help Argentina pay the overdue interest on its foreign debt. US banks will in essence pick this loan up from the lenders within a couple months, once Argentina agrees to make economic adjustments that satisfy the International Monetary Fund.

Still, many Latin American feels that such proposals, if adopted, would only worsen the debt picture. There is concern that Latin countries for the forseeable future simply cannot pay their debts.

''It is not even a question of the countries not wanting to pay their debts, '' said Sebastian Alegret, head of the Latin American Economic System.

''The region has given proof of its dignified, serious, and responsible attitude regarding its obligations, but it just cannot meet those obligations.''

Montevideo's El Dia, in comment on the debt problem discussion at the IADB meeting, put it succinctly: ''There is no money in the till. It is as simple as that.''

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