With crisis looming, Latin America rolls out red carpet for once-scorned IMF

The last time the IMF held its annual meetings in Latin America, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was at work spreading 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 Thursday in Peru's capital, 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 still are hostile in rhetoric to the so-called Washington consensus, are pursuing relatively conventional economic policies.

"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 about the debts of several then-delinquent governments in the 1980s, said that 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 the country's 2001 debt default, which still haunts South America's second-largest economy.

Still, he said some governments may have no choice given the depth of the shock from a growth slowdown in China, which has depressed prices for the region'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 by a whopping 10 percent this year even 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 play 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 so-called "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," says Alejandro Werner, a former Mexican finance official who oversees the IMF's relations with Latin America, told The Associated Press. "But we're having a much less tougher financial environment than what we used to have in the past."


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