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Role Reversal: Latin America Taunts US on Debt Woes

Worries about contagion; Brazil now a U.S. creditor

Brian Winter

Bolivia's President Evo Morales is embraced by his Argentinian counterpart Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner during a ceremony at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires June 30, 2011. "If they didn't spend money on military bases and keeping troops in other parts of the world, I think the United States could easily resolve its financial crisis," Morales said last week, according to state news agency ABI. (REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

SAO PAULO - After three decades spent battling their own debt crises and getting constantly lectured about them by Uncle Sam, many Latin Americans are watching the countdown to a possible default in Washington with a mix of schadenfraude and fear of what a collapse might mean for them.

For everybody from presidents on down to street vendors, seeing U.S. politicians argue over where to make painful budget cuts has also been a reminder that those days are over in Latin America. For now, at least, as most of the region enjoys an era of economic prosperity and comparatively tiny deficits.

In Washington, lawmakers were working feverishly to combine elements of a plan to raise the U.S. debt ceiling with market-pleasing proposals to cut spending. Congress must approve an increase in the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling by Aug. 2 or the government will run out of money to pay its bills.

"When did the American dream become a nightmare?" gloated Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez, whose own country defaulted on about $100 billion in debt a decade ago.

In a speech at the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange on Monday, she contended that Argentina had prospered since then by focusing on exports and controlling financial speculation -- a lesson that Washington has yet to learn, she said.

The Americans "thought that money just reproduces by itself, and only in the financial sector, without having to produce any goods or services," Fernandez said.

Washington's biggest critics in the region, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, have also portrayed the crisis as an inevitable outcome for a country that failed to follow its own financial advice and overextended itself militarily -- in Latin America, and elsewhere.

"If they didn't spend money on military bases and keeping troops in other parts of the world, I think the United States could easily resolve its financial crisis," Morales said last week, according to state news agency ABI.

Memories are still fresh of the self-righteous tone that U.S. officials sometimes seemed to take when the shoe was on the other foot. One infamous example: As Argentina spiraled into crisis in 2001, then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill mocked the country for its debt struggles and said: "They like it that way. Nobody forced them to be what they are."

These days, Latin America's economy as a whole is expected to expand about 4.7 percent in 2011 -- almost twice the expected rate in the United States -- thanks to strong demand for the region's commodities and a decade of mostly prudent fiscal management, itself the product of many hard-learned lessons of the past.


It is, in fact, the risk of a U.S. default sparking an old-fashioned financial contagion throughout the Americas -- like the so-called "Tequila Crisis" that spread from Mexico in the 1990s -- that has tempered the triumphalism in some quarters and kept many policymakers up late at night.

Brazil, the region's economic powerhouse, which just a decade ago had to come to Washington to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, is now the United States' fourth-biggest sovereign creditor -- holding about $211 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, according to U.S. data from May.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has met with her team of economic advisers at least four times in the past week, primarily to discuss what a default in the United States or Europe might mean for Brazil, an official told Reuters.

"(Rousseff) starts every day reading the news out of Washington," the official said. "She's fascinated by it."

Even if President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress manage a last-minute deal to avert a default, as most expect, the role reversal has left many rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

"If you're a survivor of the crises of the 80s and 90s, (this crisis) is unthinkable," wrote Miriam Leitao, one of Brazil's leading columnists, noting that Obama must now confront the kind of issues "that would have seemed like lunacy to us back in the days when they had a monopoly on power."

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas and Hilary Burke and Helen Popper in Buenos Aires; Editing by Todd Benson and Cynthia Osterman)

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