For the past six years, as the United States has focused attention on far-away crises, we have largely ignored our own neighborhood. Now we are paying for it dearly with a severe loss of influence and prestige. The administration put South America somewhere slightly ahead of Antarctica on its priority list. Now, under our very noses, our neighbors are staging a mini-revolt.

We should have seen this coming. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has recently stepped into the breach, but until she arrived, the administration’s utter abdication of Latin America policy created a gaping power vacuum in the Western hemisphere. The sense of a firm regional partnership and warm relations from the 1990s evaporated long ago and we have been playing defense ever since.

Into this regional power vacuum stepped Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. His anti-Americanism could not have come at a worse time for our relationship with our neighbors to the south. Chavez jets off to visit the most reprehensible despots in the world – in North Korea, in Iran, in Cuba – probably just because they have been identified by the United States as rogue regimes. He signs arms deals with these and other countries in a quest to militarize Venezuela to the teeth for no discernable purpose. And he makes friends with despicable perpetrators of violence: Ahmadinejad in Iran, Nasrallah of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad of Syria, and the late Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole of Argentina. I am deeply disturbed that anti-Semitism is on the rise under Chavez, accompanied by support for Islamic terrorist groups.

With his own people, Chavez angles toward his own brand of authoritarianism. Chaotic, retributive land seizures in Venezuela have led to violence, injustice, and crop shortages. Recently, Chavez crossed yet another dangerous line: curtailing freedom of the press. He closed the independent television station RCTV in a bid to consolidate power and squelch opposition. An international backlash and ongoing student protests seem only to have emboldened him. No sooner did he shut down RCTV than he threatened to do the same with Globovision, the last remaining TV channel he does not yet control.

Confounding the problem is the gutless response of the Organization of American States, which held its General Assembly days after the closing of RCTV and could not muster the courage to express even a word of concern. Adding salt to this ulcerating sore, OAS Secretary General Insulza just days later practically ripped up and tossed away the hemisphere’s main pro-democracy instrument, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, saying he doesn’t believe it should be used to pressure OAS member states. This whole episode is a stark reminder that the United States can no longer even mobilize the regional body established to address this sort of outrageous maneuver by Chavez.

The sapping of U.S. influence in this region has had wide-ranging ripple effects. In Chavez’s shadow and with his oil money, the democracies in Ecuador and Bolivia are becoming increasingly undemocratic. Both countries have recently turned on their own media, and both are in the process of altering their constitutions. In Paraguay, we hear similar echoes.

Argentina is in many ways living in its past and grapples daily with the shadow of its 2001 economic collapse. President Kirchner’s government has presided over a significant turnaround – with more than eight percent annual growth over the past three years – but he seems to listen to Mr. Chavez’s advice with alarming regularity.

There are governments in the region that are strongly democratic. These countries ought to step into the vacuum and re-claim regional leadership from Chavez. Brazil and Chile, with two strong and visionary leaders, are the standouts. Peru and Uruguay also hold considerable promise.

Colombia is on the list of standouts as well, and President Uribe has made significant strides in providing security for his people. But his troubles at home are significant, with corruption and the drug trade all too powerful. He has more than enough problems to keep him busy without saddling him with the heavy lifting in the region that used to be the role of the United States.

All of these countries show that responsible governments can and should boost economic growth and reduce inequality without enacting authoritarian policies. Our ability to shepherd them into the power void will go a long way toward reestablishing our positive influence in South America.

We have ignored South America as a partner for far too long. We have allowed Chavez to define us to our neighbors. That must stop before we reach a point of no return, a South America where most national leaders resort to the political expedients of coercion and authoritarianism. We share central values with the rest of the region: democracy, open markets, and free speech.

Secretary Rice has tried to provide, as one commentator put it, “adult supervision” to our Latin America policy since she arrived at the State Department. So there are seeds of hope.

I urge the Administration, and the next administration, to put South America at the top of the priority list and move us into the leadership vacuum the Administration created.