Latin leaders seek unity on debt. Contadora moves beyond peace bid to other issues

Opening their first-ever summit today in the Mexican resort of Acupulco, eight Latin American presidents have an old dream in their hearts: continental unity. It has proved an elusive goal. But the Latin leaders will be focusing their attention during the two-day meeting on worries that they all share - Central America's hopes for peace, and their crushing foreign debt. These are issues that pit Latin America against the United States.

Attending that meeting will be Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado and his colleagues from the Contadora group - Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama. Contadora's so-called support group - Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay - will also participate.

The eight countries initially united to bring peace to Central America, an ill-fated diplomatic marathon launched in 1983 that petered out earlier this year. But with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez' peace plan up and running, the ``Group of Eight, '' as it is known, has taken a life of its own.

The summit is the first formal sign of that life, offering Latin Americans their first glimmer of ``what could turn out to be an Organization of American States without the US,'' as one European diplomat in the region puts it.

No longer the prime movers in Central America's political future, the eight nations have turned to the area's economic needs. On the agenda, officials in Mexico say, will be a plan to give Central America's five nations an aid package - probably in kind rather than in cash - to help them rebuild their war-shattered economies.

The eight donor countries themselves are not in the best economic shape, bearing the lion's share of Latin America's $350 billion foreign debt. The region's debt crisis has simmered, threatening to explode for the past five years. Some countries, such as Venezuela have stayed up to date with their debt repayments; others have withheld payments.

The presidents are expected to devote much of their time discussing ways out of the debt crisis. One solution considered recently would allow debtors to buy back their debts at their current selling price on world financial markets.

Some banks that originally lent countries money and then despaired of ever seeing their money again have sold those debts to other banks for as little as 41 cents on the dollar. The debtor countries, however, are still paying interest on the full value of their loans. That, says Latin America, is unfair.

It seems fair to American banks, however, and they are unlikely to take kindly to any joint Latin American efforts to change the policy. Washington is also known to have reservations about the Latin aid plan for Central America, which would benefit Nicaragua.

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