The Third World debt relief plan announced by U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady reflects fears that the violence that left at least 260 dead in Venezuela last week may soon become the rule rather than the exception.
Brady called for steps to reduce the overall Third World debt and simultaneously ease credit terms, goals unmet so far despite previous attempts by the United States, its Western allies and Japan since the debt crisis made its debut in 1982 with Mexico's suspending payments on principal.After Brady outlined the new U.S. policy, the government announced a separate $450 million bridge loan to Venezuela that will allow Caracas to replenish its international reserves while awaiting an International Monetary Fund disbursement.
The bulk of Third World debt, some $400 billion, is owed by U.S. neighbors in Latin America, where most countries suffer from poverty and hunger to scrape together enough foreign exchange just to meet interest payments on their debt.
"What happened in Venezuela gives us all goose pimples," said Argentina's economy minister, Juan Vital Sourrouille.
To placate creditors and reach a needed stabilization agreement with the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela raised the price of gasoline by 83 percent and public tranport by 30 percent, detonating four days of rioting.
The scenario was a familiar one for Latin America.
As many as 100 people are believed to have died in rioting in the Dominican Republic in 1984 in reaction to an IMF-approved austerity program. In 1987, angry Brazilians stoned the bus carrying President Jose Sarney to protest a 50 percent price increase in fuel that was later rescinded.
There is an endless debate over who should get most of the blame for the Western Hemisphere's debt mess - the countries receiving the soft loans in the 1970s or the creditors who doled out the cash on flabby conditions.
What is indisputable is that while the creditor banks pay for the crisis in terms of reduced earnings to stockholders, Latin Americans are paying through growing misery and, in extreme cases like Venezuela, death.
According to U.N. statistics, Latin American nations paid creditors $29 billion more than they received in foreign exchange in 1988. In effect, that is reverse foreign aid, with the poor susidizing the rich, albeit to repay loans.
Increasingly, Latin American nations are moving into default rather than risk social insurrection by digging into their pockets.
Argentina has been in default since last April.
Venezuela, with an external debt of $33 billion, has the fourth largest such debt in Latin America - after Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Venezuela announced it was suspending debt payments indefinitely right after last week's violence.
Other nations behind in payments include Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Colombia.
Mexico, with $16 billion in IOUs due this year, could have a credit crisis shortly if oil prices plunge.
One country that has reduced its debt is Chile, which in 1988 knocked $1.5 billion off the 1987 debt balance of $19.2 billion by exchanging debt for equity, and by buying $200 million of its own debt on the secondary financial market at a 40 percent discount.