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Mexico -- short on money and faced with big debts

Like a family living beyond its means and suddenly finding no money in the till to pay the mortgage, Mexico today cannot pay its bills.

Put another way, Mexico is broke - at least temporarily.

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And to bail itself out, Mexico may have to resort to the humiliating and politically embarrassing avenue of calling in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In fact, as he called for ''harsh austerity,'' Jesus Silva Herzog, Mexico's new minister of finance, was in Washington this week to confer with the IMF. An IMF team is now in Mexico engaged in preliminary discussions over terms for IMF financial assistance. Everyone stresses that the talks are ''preliminary.''

Nevertheless the mere presence of the IMF suggests just how serious Mexico's plight has become.

Some Mexican financial observers even say the situation is worse than the government of President Jose Lopez Portillo is admitting.

This year alone, Mexico must pay upward of $17 billion in loans that mature before Dec. 31. Final interest payments on these loans, coupled with whopping interest payments on another $68 billion, run well over $10 billion. The loans come from a variety of sources, including international agencies and foreign governments, but the bulk come from international banks.

Despite substantial earnings from oil and natural gas - now Mexico's main exports - there won't be enough money in the Mexican treasury to pay all the interest, let alone the loans coming due this year.

At best Mexico will have to roll over much of this debt. To make matters worse, the value of the peso is dropping daily. Aug. 19 it fell from 69.5 to the dollar to 130 to the dollar.

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Talks with representatives of nearly 500 international banks that have provided much of Mexico's loan capital recently are scheduled to start in New York today.

For President Lopez Portillo, who leaves office Dec. 1 after six years, the situation is humiliating. He came to office at a time when the IMF had bailed Mexico out of an earlier, less severe crunch. The President prided himself that he got Mexico's financial house sufficiently in order to pay off the earlier IMF loans ahead of time.

Now, however, a new and much worse financial crunch has Mexico reeling - and the IMF is again in the picture.

IMF loans and credits are always accompanied by strict conditions that limit an economy's expansion, control wages and profits, cut back on budget deficits, and place most of the economy under stiff controls. Those IMF rules seldom appeal to governments, much less their peoples, but to obtain the IMF loans they are necessary.

In Mexico, with its fiercely nationalist traditions, an appeal to the IMF is clearly a political embarrassment. It is likely to spark a major protest.

''It is a national disgrace,'' comments a politician close to Mr. Lopez Portillo, who told a private meeting of newsmen that it could bring violence and rioting to Mexico.

But Ernesto Amtmann Obregon, president of the Mexican Business Council for International Affairs, says, ''The IMF is a necessity at this point.''

The Lopez Portillo government is divided on the issue, but apparently Mr. Silva Herzog, who favors IMF support, has won the debate. He is leading the talks with the IMF. Those sessions are being held behind closed doors, which adds to the uncertainty and lack of confidence felt in Mexico over the government's actions.

But announcements of results of these talks are expected over the weekend, and government spokesmen are hopeful that this will help dissipate some of the concern being felt among Mexicans.

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