Thirty years since Mexico’s default, Greece must break this sadistic debt spiral

We must retake control of our economies from the banks.

As Greece’s leaders pay down the latest multi-billion euro instalment on their debt, they would do well to take notice that tomorrow is the anniversary of an event of great resonance.

On 20 August 1982, Mexico declared a debt moratorium - effectively defaulting on its massive debts. Although debts in many Latin American countries had caused suffering for a number of years, this was the moment the leaders of the West were forced to confront what came to be called the ‘Third World Debt Crisis’.

Mexico owed over $50 billion, 90% to foreign private creditors - primarily US, Japanese and British banks. These banks had gone on a lending binge during the 1970s using the profits oil exporting countries had deposited with them from the oil spike. American overspending, notably on the Vietnam War, was recycled as debt to the rest of the world and, to help this, controls on international movements of money were dismantled.

Just as in our current financial crisis, bank loans to Third World countries had tended to be organised through syndicates: loans were packaged up together and then lent on in one go. This bundling meant many banks felt no need to conduct their own risk assessment. Four of the fifteen largest lenders to Latin America by 1982 were British banks: Lloyds, Midland, Barclays, and Natwest. American lenders included Citicorp, Bank of America, and Chase Manhattan.

At the end of the 1970s the US Federal Reserve sprung the trap, massively hiking interest rates in order to save their banks from inflation. The costs for this move were pushed onto Third World countries like Mexico. Two years later, the inevitable happened.

Now US and British banks faced a crisis. If loans from Mexico and other Latin American countries were not paid, they could go bankrupt. The banks stopped lending to Latin America, pushing more countries closer to default, and lobbied the US government to get them out of their mess. The US responded by getting the International Monetary Fund, and later the World Bank, to provide bailout loans to Latin American governments.

In 1982 the IMF lent Mexico $4 billion, which went straight back out of the country to pay western banks - a perfect mirror of what is happening with so-called bail-outs to Greece and other Eurozone countries today. At the same time, the IMF insisted Mexico introduce radical austerity and liberalisation. There were cuts in every area of government spending.

The economy collapsed and stagnated, many industries shut down, with the loss of at least 800,000 workers altogether. By 1989, the Mexican economy was still 11% smaller than 1981. Meanwhile, the debt doubled from 30% of GDP in 1982 to 60% by 1987.

The same story was repeated across Latin America. In 1990 Latin American economies were on average 8% smaller than they had been in 1980, and the number of people living in poverty increased from 144 million to 211 million. Former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo calls the bail-out responses "an excellent way to deal with the US banking crisis, and an awful way to deal with the Latin American debt crisis".

Meanwhile, government external debt more than doubled (from an average of 17% in 1982 to 44% by 1988). Just as in Greece today, the bailouts had nothing to do with long-term sustainable finances - they were bailing out reckless lenders who had over-stretched themselves.  

In fact, the banks gradually wrote-down the ‘book value’ of how much they regarded the debts to be worth, even while they were being repaid. They were allowed to set these theoretical losses off against profit for tax reasons, greatly reducing the tax bill of US and British banks. In 1987 alone, Barclays, Midland, Lloyds and Natwest received a tax relief subsidy of up to $1.75bn across the four banks. Then campaign organiser for War on Want John Denham accused the Thatcher government of "joining in the banks' attempts to have the burden of repayment pushed onto taxpayers."

The policies of bailout and austerity went on to be practiced across the world in the years that followed the Latin American catastrophe. That experience forced dozens of countries through two lost decades of development and enthroned the financiers as the new masters of the universe.

Today Greece, as well as other European countries, can share in the experience of Latin America from the 1980s. Then as now, bailout money was used to repay reckless banks, whilst austerity has served only to shrink economies and increase the relative size of the debt. Since 2010 the Greek government’s external debt has increased from 118% of GDP to 150% in 2012. The economy has shrunk by 15% since the start of 2010 and unemployment has reached 19%.

To repeat such failed policies is more than carelessness. The future of Europe’s economy, indeed the world economy, will be decided by a battle between the financial masters on the one side, and the peoples of the most indebted states in Europe on the other - Greece first. We either retake control of our economy from the banks, or we deepen an economic experiment which has had an incalculable cost in terms of the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. 

Nick Dearden is the director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Employees of Greece's ATEbank shout anti government slogans on August 3 in Athens. Photo: Getty
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle