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Argentina and IMF discuss debt in shadow of 2001 crisis

Members of political parties and social movements protest the visit of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation, one with a sign that reads in Spanish "Get out of Argentina IMF. No to the debt payment," in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. Argentina announced Tuesday that it will delay paying principal on a peso-denominated bond that had been due this week while it works on restructuring an overall debt it says is unpayable at a time of economic hardship. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)
Members of political parties and social movements protest the visit of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation, one with a sign that reads in Spanish "Get out of Argentina IMF. No to the debt payment," in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. Argentina announced Tuesday that it will delay paying principal on a peso-denominated bond that had been due this week while it works on restructuring an overall debt it says is unpayable at a time of economic hardship. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina has been here before: recession, growing poverty, high inflation, billions of dollars in debt, a looming deadline for repayment and simmering anger toward the International Monetary Fund.

This is a big week for one of Latin America's biggest economies, which is hosting an IMF team for talks on restructuring $44 billion in debt owed to the lender. All involved are anxious to avoid a replay of 2001, when Argentina defaulted on about $100 billion in debt during the worst economic crisis — and there have been many — in its history.

Once again, Argentina doesn't have the cash to pay creditors, and is desperate for relief from its total debt burden, also valued at around $100 billion. It's a balance for President Alberto Fernández, who seeks a deal with the IMF that does not alienate his leftist base, as represented by his deputy and former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

“It will be a frantic negotiation to put an end to austerity, restructure commitments with the fund, and get the latter’s green light to pursue a renegotiation with private bondholders, all by 31 March 2020,” Verisk Maplecroft, a consulting company based in Britain, said in a report.

“I think the fund is willing to help Argentina, but in order to do that, it's necessary for the Argentine authorities to steer away from interventionist and heterodox policies and show clear willingness and ability to improve the fiscal situation in no more than two to three years,” said Alberto Ramos, chief Latin America economist for Goldman Sachs.

At the time of the 2001 default, the relationship between Argentina and the IMF grew increasingly strained. The IMF later acknowledged shortcomings, including a failure to identify vulnerabilities in the Argentine economy during its boom years.

Martín Guzmán, the economy minister, told Congress on Wednesday that the IMF is partly to blame for Argentina's current debt crisis, though progress is being made in debt meetings. He said the country needs more time.

“To be able to pay the debt, Argentina needs to grow and to be able to grow, the weight of a suffocating debt needs to be lifted,” Guzmán said.

Some demonstrators who favor a hard line on Argentina's creditors marched toward the local offices of the IMF in Buenos Aires in protest.

“When workers in Argentina hear the term IMF, they know that long periods of darkness lie ahead,” said Damaris Rolón, a protest leader. He said the IMF should get out of Argentina and that the government shouldn't pay back its debt.

A new IMF program would reassure bondholders that Fernández has a good plan to balance the budget, lower inflation and pay debts, said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Argentina Project at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“Politically, it might be appealing for Fernández to demand concessions not only from private creditors, but also from the IMF,” Gedan wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

“After all, the Fund is loathed by Argentines who remember its role in the 2001 economic catastrophe,” he said. “But a clash with the IMF would be foolhardy, and immensely complicate Argentina’s efforts to claw its way out of its latest debt morass.”

President Fernández took office in December after an election win that spooked markets fearing a return to leftist economic policies of the past. During her presidency, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had implemented interventionist policies that were widely blamed for economic problems.

Yet the predecessor of the current president, Mauricio Macri, had fallen into disfavor after obtaining a record financing deal with the IMF in 2018. Argentines chafed under the austerity measures required as part of the agreement, the currency plunged and daily life got worse.

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF's managing director, said her organization shares the same goals as Argentina's government.

“In this regard, the measures adopted thus far go in the direction of restoring macroeconomic stability and protecting the poor,” Georgieva said after meeting Argentina's economy minister in Rome last week.

Yet many Argentines and foreign investors wonder: is a 2001-style scenario unfolding all over again?

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Torchia reported from Mexico City.

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