Latin America Poses Challenges To IMF Amid the global downturn, the IMF could face its biggest test in Latin America, where it has a stormy history of development loans and tinkering with economies. Some governments loudly severed ties over the agency's free-market orthodoxy. But some of those countries now need big loans.

Latin America Poses Challenges To IMF

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In this recession, the International Monetary Fund is ready to loan billions. Fund watchers are especially interested to see what kind of success the IMF has in Latin America. That's a region where the fund was so discredited for pushing its free market orthodoxy that some governments loudly severed relations earlier this decade. Now, some of those countries need big loans, and economists say the logical lender is the IMF. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Bogota, Colombia.

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JUAN FORERO: In February of 2003, in the remote, land-locked country of Bolivia, the people rose up against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Thirty people died in the failed coup.

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FORERO: They rebelled against a tax hike levied to reduce the fiscal deficit — an IMF demand made on Bolivia.

Javier Comboni was finance minister then, and is now a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Professor JAVIER COMBONI (Wheaton College; Former Finance Minister, Bolivia): The fund wasn't helpful at all. They had a big role on what ended up happening. They were very stringent and adamant on asking the government to place a new tax.

FORERO: The IMF has its critics worldwide, but nowhere is the fund more scorned than in Latin America. Many leaders blame the IMF for making tough demands that hurt instead of helped: cuts in spending, devalued currencies, privatizations.

Fund loans to Latin America dropped from $48 billion in 2003, to under a billion last year. The trend can be attributed to a booming export market. But a new wave of left-leaning leaders also raged against the IMF. Some, like former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, paid off IMF loans and promptly severed ties.

Nicolas Eyzaguirre is the fund's Western Hemisphere director. He says today's IMF is a new one.

Mr. NICOLAS EYZAGUIRRE (IMF Western Hemisphere Director): We are emphasizing, much more than in the past, that the adjustment cannot take place at the expense of weakening the social safety nets.

FORERO: He says a more flexible IMF is making it easier to access loans. And the number of countries seeking loans in Latin American could grow threefold by the end of the year. The idea is to spur spending and improve investor confidence.

Mr. EYZAGUIRRE: If we are willing to put our money where our mouth is, investors should not fear. The fund could step in, if the countries want, with our money. And it's a wall of money, you know, it's a wall of money.

FORERO: Other multilateral lenders are also offering loans. They include small, regional outfits like the Andean Development Corporation, and bigger ones like the Inter-American Development Bank, which is based in Washington.

The president at the IDB is Luis Alberto Moreno, and he says loan approvals could rise by more than 60 percent, to $18 billion this year.

Mr. LUIS ALBERTO MORENO (President, Inter-American Development Bank): We have, you know, a very deep reach. We have 26 offices throughout the region. They love coming to the bank.

FORERO: But it's the IMF that has the big bucks. Already this year, three Central American countries and Colombia are applying for loans. And the IMF announced that Mexico is receiving $47 billion through its new, flexible credit line, an overdraft of sorts that's offered to countries the IMF says have sound economic policies.

Nora Lustig is an Argentine economist now teaching at George Washington University.

Dr. NORA LUSTIG (Argentine economist, professor at George Washington University): The institution that has most of their resources and the flexibility to deploy them - of all the multilateral institutions, the financial multilateral institutions, is the IMF.

FORERO: The big question is whether countries that fell out with the IMF will go back, like Bolivia. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa's government kicked the IMF out of its office in the central bank. Still, economists in Ecuador familiar with government policy tell NPR that finance ministry officials are resuming talks - quietly.

It's easy to see why. Ecuador is in need of a loan.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.

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