For many of the developing countries of Latin America, 1978 was a year of lowered, or at least postponed, expectations.

In Brazil, where the inflation rate has risen to 45 per cent, President Ernesto Geisel announced last month that public spending this year would be cut by at least $3.5 billion, much of it to come out of ambitious transportation and construction programs.

In Mexico, where the value of the peso was cut in half in September after 22 years without a devaluation, economic analysts predicted that new President Jose Lopez Portillo's best option to avoid economic disaster was to slow the pace of economic and social reforms, and risk the wrath of labor by limiting wage increases.

The Argentine military government that deposed Isabel Peron last March ended the year under a real threat from disgruntled workers who have been asked to sacrifice material comforts for the good of the country's balance of payments.

With few exceptions, most notably oil producers Venezuela and Ecuador, Latin American nations found themselves at a crossroads where heavy borrowing, high petroleum prices, and the backlash of recession in the industrialized nations that buy their raw material exports met head on.

The resultant fiscal crisis was predictable, economic analysts say, "World trading patterns have got to hava a balance," said Latin American analyst Colin Bradford. "When the OPEC countries run surpluses, somebody has to run a deficit. The strong, industrialized countries didn't, so it was left to the developing countries to play the role of adjusters."

There was no shortage of outside money lenders to help them adjust. Figures released by the Treasury Department at mid-1976 showed that private U.S. banks and their international branches had extended record amounts inloans to developing countries - a total of approximately $50 billion. More than half of that is owed by Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Peru.

Despite current difficulties, international and private lenders, multinational corporations and the Latins themselves are confident that the balance will right itself. With a growing majority of right-wing military governments eager to offer attractive investment opportunities, incalculable agricultural and development potential, and a vast store of natural resources, they feel it is only a matter of time and prudent fiscal management.

A country-by-country survey of the largest Latin American economies shows what has happened to them and why, and prospects for the immediate future.

Brazil broke all Latin American debt records last year with an international deficit estimated at $26 billion, triple that of four years ago. Its largest expenditure is for oil, and 80 per cent of that is imported.

President Geisel's 12-year-old government has opted continually for growth, with an ostensible disregard for what it cost. It was a long shot, but it may have worked. Foreign companies came in droves, and may are so well-entrenched that they now have no choice but to help country pay off its debt.

To start foreign suppliers since the end of 1975 have had to deposit in the national bank for 360 days sums equal to the value of the import goods. Even strict import restrictions, however, haven't dampened investment ferver significantly.

One of the most successful of Brazil's expensive expansion programs has been in agriculture. Through subsidies and credit to large farmers - often at the expense of high food prices - Brazil produced a record soybean crop last year that managed to offset heavy losses in coffee caused by a 1975 frost that killed most of the country's coffee trees.

Geisel's cutbacks are expected to cut the country's yearly 10 per cent growth rate in half.

According to one State Department analyst, "Mexico's problems stem from a calculated decision, taken in 1970 and 1971, to promote social development. Money went into the infrastructure - in the steel and petroleum industries, in agriculture extension and social and urban welfare programs."

When recession hit the United States, this country bought fewer Mexican goods. But despite taking in less money, Mexico didn't reduce its own imports substantially, and "made up for it over the short term by borrowing, according to the analyst. "That can only go on for so long."

Long Latin America's most stable currency, after 22 years of fixed parity at 12.5 to the dollar, the peso was believed overvalued by at least 30 per cent by 1975. In early summer, political unrest, coupled with an annual fear of imminent devaluation, led to a run on Mexican banks that drained millions over the border to Texas.

Prices started to go up immediately after devaluation, but the government hopes to keep expenses for visitors down. A substantial loss in tourism was one of the contributing factors to devaluation in the first place. Now floating, the peso seems at least temporarily to have leveled at approximately 20 to the dollar.

Oil exports, which began in 1975, are expected to help the balance of payments. Employment will continue to be a problem. According to an internal International Monetary Fund study issued last September, unemployment was expected to run at 8 per cent for 1976, with "more than 40 per cent of the labor force underemployed." One of Lopez Portillio's first tasks will be to deal with workers who expect wage increases of up to 50 per cent.

Mexican farmers and landholders will be watching to see how Lopez Portillo handles the legacy left by his predecesor, Luis Echeverria - a transfer of $80 million in private landholdings to Mexican peasants.

Argentina expected a dramatic rise in outside investment with liberation of import and investment restrictions following Isabel Peron's ouster in March. So far, the investment has been slow to materialize.

One reason is continued internal unrest - both from terrorists on both sides of the political spectrum, and from labor unionists whose wages and benefits have been cut back from alltime Peronist highs by the new military government.

Economy Minister Jose Martinez de Hoz is hoping the unionists will hold back for long enough to develop Argentina's agricultural industry.

Under strict austerity imposed by Martinez de Hoz, inflation has dropped from the three-digit level to around 7 per cent per month, where it is expected to remain this year.

Chile suffered from the same reluctance on the part of outside investment, along with the added burden of copper prices that rose briefly at mid-year, and then began to fall again. Total exports increased, howevver.

The country ran a balance of payments surplus in 1976 after years in the minus column, and is expected to contine the trend. The price, however, has been a drastic decline in employment and real earnings for Chilean workers.

Not every Latin American country had a bad year. Following the Brazilian frost, coffee-produce Colombia picked up the slack, sold its crop at record prices, and ended up with a large trade surplus.

In Venezuela, where the oil industry was nationalized last year, President Carlos Andres Perez began working on ways to filter oil income down through the economy, a problem in the past.