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The Latin American debt crisis was a financial crisis that occurred in the early 1980s (and for some countries starting in the 1970s), often known as the "lost decade", when Latin American countries reached a point where their foreign debt exceeded their earning power and they were not able to repay it.



In the 1960s and 1970s many Latin American countries, notably Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, borrowed huge sums of money from international creditors for industrialization; especially infrastructure programs. These countries had soaring economies at the time so the creditors were happy to continue to provide loans. Between 1975 and 1982, Latin American debt to commercial banks increased at a cumulative annual rate of 20.4 percent. This heightened borrowing led Latin America to quadruple its external debt from $75 billion in 1975 to more than $315 billion in 1983, or 50 percent of the region's gross domestic product (GDP). Debt service (interest payments and the repayment of principal) grew even faster, reaching $66 billion in 1982, up from $12 billion in 1975.[1]

Beginning of the debt crisis and effects

When the world economy went into recession in the 1970s and 80s, and oil prices skyrocketed, it created a breaking point for most countries in the region. Developing countries also found themselves in a desperate liquidity crunch. Petroleum exporting countries – flush with cash after the oil price increases of 1973-74 – invested their money with international banks, which 'recycled' a major portion of the capital as loans to Latin American governments. As interest rates increased in the United States of America and in Europe in 1979, debt payments also increased making it harder for borrowing countries to pay back their debts.[2] While the dangerous accumulation of foreign debt occurred over a number of years, the debt crisis began when the international capital markets became aware that Latin America would not be able to pay back its loans. This occurred in August 1982 when Mexico's Finance Minister, Jesus Silva-Herzog declared that Mexico would no longer be able to service its debt.[3] In the wake of Mexico's default, most commercial banks reduced significantly or halted new lending to Latin America. As much of Latin America's loans were short-term, a crisis ensued when their refinancing was refused. Billions of dollars of loans that previously would have been refinanced, were now due immediately.

However, some unorthodox economists like Stephen Kanitz attribute the debt crisis not to the high level of indebtedness nor to the disorganization of the continent's economy. They say that the cause of the crisis was leverage limits such as U.S. government banking regulations which forbid its banks from lending over ten times the amount of their capital, a regulation that, when the inflation eroded their lending limits, forced them to cut the access of underdeveloped countries to international savings. [1]

In response to the crisis most nations abandoned their import substitution industrialization (ISI) models of economy and adopted an export-oriented industrialization strategy, usually the neoliberal strategy encouraged by the IMF, though there are exceptions such as Chile and Costa Rica who adopted reformist strategies. A massive process of capital outflow, particularly to the United States, served to depreciate the exchange rates, thereby raising the real interest rate. Real GDP growth rate for the region was only 2.3 percent between 1980 and 1985, but in per capita terms Latin America experienced negative growth of almost 9 percent.

The debt crisis is one of the elements which contributed to the collapse of some authoritarian dictatorships in the region, such as Brazil's military regime and the Argentine bureaucratic-authoritarian regime.

Current levels of external debt

Since the 1980 several countries in the region have experienced a surge in economic development and have initiated debt management programs in addition to debt relief and debt rescheduling programs agreed to by their international creditors. However, the debt crisis continues to have enduring effects, including the USD 2.94 trillion of Latin American and Caribbean debt traded globally in 2004, accounting for 63.2 % of total emerging markets debt traded worldwide that year.[4] The following is a list of external debt for Latin America based on a March 2006 report by The World Factbook.[5]

Rank Country - Entity External Debt
(million US$)
Date of information
22 Brazil 211,400 30 June 2005 est.
24 Mexico 174,300 30 June 2005 est.
29 Argentina 119,000 June 2005 est.
39 Chile 44,800 31 October 2005 est.
43 Venezuela 39,790 2005 est.
45 Colombia 37,060 30 June 2005 est.
50 Peru 30,180 30 June 2005 est.
65 Ecuador 17,010 31 December 2004 est.
73 Cuba 13,100 2005 est.
79 Uruguay 9,931 30 June 2005 est.
81 Panama 9,859 2005 est.
85 El Salvador 8,273 30 June 2005 est.
88 Dominican Republic 7,907 2005 est.
95 Bolivia 6,430 2005 est.
98 Guatemala 5,503 2005 est.
103 Honduras 4,675 2005 est.
108 Nicaragua 4,054 2005 est.
110 Costa Rica 3,633 30 June 2005 est.
112 Paraguay 3,535 2005 est.

See also


  1. ^ Institute of Latin American Studies, The Debt Crisis in Latin America, p.69
  2. ^ Schaeffer, Robert. Understanding Globalization, p.90
  3. ^ Pastor, Robert A. Latin American Debt Crisis: Adjusting for the Past or Planning for the Future, p.9
  4. ^ Emerging Market Trade Association survey
  5. ^ The World Factbook, 2006


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