LONDON -- Bankers and governments are learning the truth of the Spanish adage that if you owe someone a dollar you've got a problem, but if you owe him $1,000, the problem is his.
Foreign and finance ministers of the four principal Latin American debtor nations -- Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia -- will meet in Colombia Thursday and Friday to map their strategy following a declaration last weekend on the Third World debt problem at the London economic summit.
There are signs that the Latin Americans are ready to flex their muscles in the absence of a radical solution from the summit participants -- the world's seven major industrialized non-communist nations.
Argentina -- where inflation rages at 570 per cent -- has served notice that it is not willing to accept further austerity terms dictated by the International Monetary Fund as the price of rescheduling parts of its $43 billion foreign debt.
The London summit -- attended by the leaders of the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, West Germany and Japan -- failed to produce the global solutions sought by many debtor nations, including a cap on interest rates.
Instead the summit leaders agreed to continue a 2-year-old policy of dealing with debtor countries on a case-by-case basis, with the recommendation that nations submitting to IMF-prescribed austerity measures should be allowed to reschedule their debts for periods of several years at a time.
Rescheduling allows a borrower to postpone repayment of the principal, but not to delay or reduce interest payments.
The summit did little beyond expressing mild disapproval of high U.S. interest rates, which many economic experts blame for aggravating the debt crisis.
Within hours of the summit's final communique, the Argentine Cabinet decided to send a letter of intent to the IMF's governing board, attempting in effect to dictate its own terms on how and when to make debt repayments.
The move could lead the IMF to cancel a bridging loan it put together in March to enable Argentina to reduce its arrears of interest, and casts doubt over Argentina's prospects of arranging fresh loan agreements. This means that U.S. banks may be forced to reclassify their loans to Argentina as 'non-performing,' distorting the banks' profit figures and dealing another shock to a system already under intense strain.
The four countries due to meet in Colombia between them owe $203 billion -- more than a quarter of the total Third World debt of $800 billion and the major slice of the Latin American debt of $300 billion.
Both the Brazilian and Mexican governments have drawn praise for the way they have tackled the debt problem under the IMF's guidance. Mexico already is getting the kind of longterm debt rescheduling suggested at the summit. Similar deals are likely to be worked out for Brazil.
But IMF austerity measures entail sharply reduced spending power, massive unemployment and even widespread hunger. The United Nations Children's Fund says more than half of Brazilian children under the age of six do not get enough to eat.
Like Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology doomed to roll a heavy stone up a mountain for eternity, some of Latin America's major debtors see little chance of recovery as they lurch from crisis to crisis and bridging loan to bridging loan, inviting domestic unpopularity as they seek to remain credit-worthy.
Because of the debt burden there now is a net flow of funds from the poorer part of the world to the richer. In a recent study of 24 major debtor nations, the American Express Banking Corp. said that since the debt crisis erupted in 1982 only in Yugoslavia has money from the IMF exceeded the net outflow to the banks.
In a forthcoming novel called 'Cataclysm' the former vice-president of the World Bank, William Clark, looks ahead three years and predicts the debt crisis could lead to economic warfare between the northern and southern hemispheres. He warns that 'This earth can be destroyed by the poverty bomb as thoroughly as by the atom bomb.'
But in London last week, Walter Wriston, chairman of Citibank, rejected the apocalyptic view.
'There is no world debt crisis,' he said, 'only countries that have individual debt problems.'