Hugo Chavez (Photo by Thomas Coex/Newscom

Our neighbors to the south have been making considerable progress over the past decade. Economic growth in the region has risen a healthy 5.5%. Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile and others have done quite well. But the current economic crisis comes like a curve ball and will lower growth expectations and place considerable strain on the economies of Latin America. Working to repair damages and keep economic growth going with trade and investment will be a major challenge for the next U.S. president.Accomplishing this goal will be complicated by the resurgence of anti-American populism, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. To Chávez’s delight, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and others have joined the anti-American chorus. Even Honduras, a nation that has long enjoyed good relations with the United States, recently announced its readiness to associate more closely with Chávez’s views.

Marked by frequent outlandish verbal outbursts, Chávez is doing all he can to irritate the United States and sow seeds of anti-Americanism abroad. He has expelled the U.S. ambassador, called President Bush “the devil,” bought support of other poor countries in the region with oil money and covert assistance, taunted the United States by purchasing Russian weaponry and inviting the Russian fleet to perform naval exercises in the Caribbean, and materially supported the FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia — the strongest U.S. ally in the region. His growing ties with foes of freedom like Iran and his support for communist Cuba only toss fat into the fire.

Although Chávez suffered a blow in December 2007 when the people of Venezuela narrowly rejected a referendum that would have allowed his indefinite stay in power, he continues to market his “Bolivarian revolution” and the creation of a socialist-inspired state.

Yet, suddenly Chávez’s influence may suffer because of the fall in oil prices. According to the New York Times, economists in Venezuela are expressing alarm that the country may not be able to foot the bills, that the politics of populist promises may empty the national purse. With inflation at a hefty 36%, with crime on the rise, and many asking what Chávez has actually achieved in terms of a sustainable fight against poverty, many Venezuelan voters may opt for opposition candidates when they go to the polls on Nov. 23 to vote in state and municipal elections.

While Latin America policy, and Venezuela in particular, has only been fleetingly mentioned in this presidential campaign, whoever wins — McCain or Obama — needs to be ready to engage with Latin America soon after taking office. The Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in April 2009 will demand vision and a real policy. As for Chávez, the next U.S. president will need toughness, imagination and adequate resources to go the distance against Chávez in the battle for the hearts and minds of Latin Americans.