Numerous articles have been appearing about the health of the economic recoveries in Latin America.
Meanwhile, recession lingers in the United States.
All this makes me even more upset about the U.S. debt-forgiveness program and more angry at the people behind it.
The U.S. government placed the claims of foreign nations above those of its own people. Debt forgiveness transferred U.S. jobs, businesses, and wealth to the Latin Americans -- a type of foreign aid borne by the banking industry.
Most illustrative of the Latins' gains at U.S. expense is the story of how social unrest in Venezuela in 1989 galvanized political action in this country.
Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., had been saying for years that U.S. banks had taken unfair advantage of Latin Americans by forcing them to borrow sizable amounts of money. According to the senator, the funds were not needed but were taken only so the bankers could reap "fat" profits.
For this sin, Mr. Bradley wanted the banks to make major concessions so that Latin American governments would not be forced to "starve" their people to repay the debt.
Austerity Plan Leads to Riots
In early 1989, just after Carlos Andres Perez became Venezuela's president, an austerity program drove up the prices of a number of consumer goods. Riots ensued and, according to press reports, 300 Venezuelans were shot and killed by troops loyal to the government.
In the United States, these events caused a "panic" that the Communists were going to gain a South American foothold because the banks were being unrealistic in seeking repayment of loans. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady proposed a program that would give the Latins the debt forgiveness that Sen. Bradley was calling for.
Under Secretary David Mulford, Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., and Democratic Delegate Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia formed a bipartisan coalition against the banks and in support of the Brady debt relief program, which became a reality in 1990.
Venezuela was not the first to be awarded debt relief, but it was one of the recipients of U.S. largesse. This must be considered somewhat surprising since, thanks to its oil reserves, Venezuela is one of the richest countries in the world.
In 1990, when it presumably negotiated and won the right to obtain debt forgiveness, Venezuela owned Petroleos de Venezuela, which some authorities ranked as the forth-largest oil company in the world.
The company had been nationalized in 1976, during a previous presidential term of Mr. Perez, who also took control of 13 foreign oil companies operating in the country.
In 1990, PDV recorded revenue of about $14 billion and a profit of $2.5 billion.
The ironies related to PDV and its profits abounded. The plight of the starving Venezuelans that so moved the United States to demand debt relief was apparently having no impact on the rulers in Caracas.
In 1986, when it first refused to meet its debt obligations, Venezuela spent $290 million to purchase a 50% interest in Citgo, the U.S. oil company.
In 1989, it bought 100% of the Champlin Refining & Chemical, a U.S. company with annual revenue of $2 billion. The price of Champlin was not disclosed but presumably was enough to buy a lot of bread for the hungry at home.
Course of Expansion
The Venezuelan government remained intent on expanding its oil business rapidly. It next bought a half interest in a Unocal refinery in Illinois for $500 million.
In September 1989, the U.S. government pressured the bankers into providing a $600 million loan on favorable terms. Venezuela then promptly spent $675 million to purchase the 50% of Citgo that it did not yet own.
Perhaps strapped for cash, the country unilaterally stopped all payments on its U.S. debt. At the time, Venezuela controlled 5% of the gasoline stations in the United States, or about 9,700.
In 1990 Venezuela may have had an $8 billion trade surplus and may have been holding $10 billion in hard cash -- money that it is using to further expand its oil empire.
Some of the questions that might have been asked at the time Venezuela was given what may have been $12 billion in loan concessions are:
* Why was this country entitled to any loan benefits?
* If the plight of its poor was so grave, why wasn't some of the money diverted to help them?
* Why was Venezuela allowed to buy so much in U.S. oil assets when Americans are specifically prohibited from doing the same in Venezuela and, in fact, had their oil holdings in Venezuela expropriated in the 1976 nationalization?
* Instead of granting Venezuela major debt benefits from 1989 to 1990, why didn't the U.S. government expropriate Venezuelan holdings in the United States and pay back the American banks?
* Why do the Venezuelans, who refused to pay their debt service to Americans, continue to receive interest and principal on their loans to the United States?
Consider, too, the case of Mexico, which effectively stopped making debt payments in 1982 when a number of its largest companies were thought to be insolvent.
The largest of these were located in the highly industrialized Monterrey region and were believed to owe U.S. banks $16 billion to $26 billion.
To save these companies from bankruptcy, the Mexican government, with the active aid of the U.S. government, devised an ingenious plan. All private debt would be funneled through a new government agency called Fideicomiso para la Cobertura de Riesgos Cambiarios, or Ficorca.
Ficorca took responsibility for making debt-service payments totaling $12 billion for the troubled companies. The companies were to pay their debt in pesos to the Mexican government, which would supposedly pay the U.S. banks back in dollars.
In actually, this debt ultimately became indistinguishable from Mexican government debt. It was, therefore, initially lengthened in term and then, in part, forgiven as part of the Brady plan.
This placed Mexican private-sector debtors in a strong position against their U.S. bank creditors. They demanded huge concessions on the loans and agreed to buy back the total amount outstanding if the concessions were granted.
Grupo Industrial Alfa, for example, was able to buy some of its debt for 25% of the face amount. In total, the companies who signed agreements with Ficorca saw their obligations fall from $12 billion to $2 billion in six or seven years.
A particularly innovative Mexican conglomerate named Vitro was able to negotiate its debt down from what was believed to be $750 million in 1982 to about $25 million in 1989.
Hostile Takeover Sought
Armed with an unusually strong balance sheet showing minimal debt, the company contacted the investment banking firm Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette and Security Pacific National Bank, stating its desire to do a hostile takeover in the United States.
The target company was Anchor Glass in Tampa, Fla., the second-largest U.S. glass producer. It was burdened with debt, which no one was about to forgive.
After a short, acrimonious battle, Vitro took over Anchor Glass. It thereby became the largest glass producer in the world and had $850 million in debt, primarily to American holders.
If the economy weakens, Vitro will presumably be able to fire its U.S. workers, float the assets of the old Anchor Glass to Monterrey, get another deal from Ficorca, and leave the debtholders with what they deserve.
The U.S. government raised no objection to this takeover, even though Anchor Glass would never have been allowed to do a hostile takeover in Mexico.
Where Are They Now?
Some films end with a short "where are they now?" epilogue. Let us do the same here:
* Venezuela is now the fastest-growing country in the Western hemisphere. Mexico is rapidly recovering from its depression. Together, the countries have received what may equal more than $100 billion in debt forgiveness from the recession-mired United States.
* The private sector in both countries is doing well and is constantly being described in glowing terms by the U.S. press. The American banking system, however, continues to take it on the chin.
* The banks in the areas represented by the key legislators in this tale -- Sen. Bradley, Rep. LaFalce, and Del. Fauntroy -- have been pummeled unmercifully, with some subjected to scandal. Tens of thousands of their constituents have lost jobs, small businesses have lost access to credit, and the housing industry is suffering as home prices decline.
The Latin Americans who gained jobs, bank deposits, and dividend income are living better. A Mexican billionaire just bought a major Mexican bank.
Mr. Bove is a banking consultant with the Bove Group in Chatham, N.J.