GLOBAL ECONOMY

IMF holds annual meeting in Latin America for first time since 1967

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde answers a question during a TV interview in Lima, Peru, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015. The world's finance ministers and central bankers are in Lima for the joint annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF that run through Sunday. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde answers a question during a TV interview in Lima, Peru, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015. The world's finance ministers and central bankers are in Lima for the joint annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF that run through Sunday. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The last time the IMF held its annual meetings in Latin America, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was trying to spread Cuba's revolution throughout the hemisphere and much of the region was under the thumb of repressive dictatorships.

But as policy makers from around the world began arriving in Peru's capital Thursday, the ideological battles of the past appear to be fading.

In the five decades since their last annual meeting in the region, in Rio de Janeiro in 1967, the IMF and World Bank have loosened up on policy prescriptions that forced austerity on much of the hemisphere. And many governments, even some leftist ones like Bolivia and Ecuador that are hostile in rhetoric to the so-called Washington consensus, are pursuing relatively conventional economic policies that have dramatically improved the lives of the region's people.

"It's not the old Latin America; it's not the old IMF either," Christine Lagarde, the fund's managing director, told journalists Thursday. "The relationship is one of cooperation and partnership."

But the newfound openness could soon be tested if the IMF is called in to pick up the pieces left by crashing commodities prices.

William R. Rhodes, a former senior vice chairman of Citigroup who represented banks in negotiations over the debts of several then-delinquent governments in the 1980s, said no country in the region wants to seek the IMF's assistance.

"The saga of Argentina is still fresh in everyone's heads," he said, referring to the blame heaped on the IMF for its role in that country's 2001 debt default, which still haunts South America's second-largest economy.

Still, Rhodes said, some governments may have no choice, given the depth of the shock from the slowdown in China, which has depressed prices for Latin America's copper, oil and iron ore while fueling a stampede of foreign investment out of emerging markets. Pulled down by deep recessions in Brazil and Venezuela, the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to contract 0.3 percent this year, threatening to push many members of the region's new middle classes back into poverty.

"All of these countries really thrived on the commodity boom, so it's going to take time to work out," said Rhodes, who lived in Venezuela for more than a decade and now heads a consulting firm bearing his name. "If they don't manage it well, it could get very tough because we're entering a period of slow global growth."

Signs of an impending crisis may already be emerging.

In Brazil, the region's largest economy, the currency recently plunged to a record low and unemployment jumped to a five-year peak, adding to political tensions behind mass street protests calling for President Dilma Rousseff's resignation. Venezuela's economy is forecast to shrink a whopping 10 percent this year as it copes with widespread shortages and the world's highest inflation, around 200 percent.

For now, the IMF is resisting any suggestion that it will be forced to clean up.

In the past 15 years, most Latin American governments have taken advantage of the bonanza to stockpile foreign currency reserves and lift domestic savings. Unlike the "Lost Decade" of the 1980s, when almost every nation in the hemisphere turned to the IMF to cope with the fallout from a borrowing binge fueled by high oil prices, today only three countries in the Western Hemisphere — Honduras, Jamaica and Grenada — depend on the IMF for financial assistance.

"We have a tough growth scenario," said Alejandro Werner, a former Mexican finance official who oversees the IMF's relations with Latin America. "But we're having a much less tougher financial environment than what we used to have in the past."

Werner said the IMF has also benefited from a more stable relationship, taking lessons learned from governments in Latin America, such as Chile's rainy day fund made up of windfall copper revenues or Mexico's and Brazil's direct cash transfers to the poor, and applying them in other parts of the world.

José Antonio Ocampo, a former Colombian finance minister who made history in 2012 by becoming the first non-American to seek the presidency of the World Bank, said flexible exchange rates and a deeper well of domestic savings in the majority of the region's economies will allow countries to weather a prolonged storm.

"And there's another big difference: It's called China," Ocampo said, adding that many financially strained governments can seek help from the Asian giant before turning to the IMF, as Ecuador and Venezuela already have done.

To be sure, plenty of governments in Latin America still quarrel with the IMF. Argentina hasn't allowed a review of its finances, as required by all IMF members, since 2006. It's a path Venezuela's socialist government has also pursued.

"First they suck your blood and then they take away the supply of oxygen," Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said in July of the IMF in support of Greece's fight with its creditors.

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