WASHINGTON -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has never been coy about his imperial plans. What started as the Cuba-Venezuela axis now includes Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Dominica. They all belong to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Argentina and Paraguay often cooperate with the group. El Salvador's governing party answers directly to Chavez.
The fact that moderate left-wing governments lend international support to Caracas and that center-right leaders tread carefully for fear of domestic consequences allows the Venezuelan autocrat significant latitude. Using Petrocaribe, a mechanism for providing subsidized oil to 13 members of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) plus Cuba and Guatemala, Chavez's reach goes beyond ALBA. The recipients of Venezuelan largesse oblige Caracas with support at the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations. They helped elect Jose Miguel Insulza as secretary-general of the OAS in 2005 and have the strength to re-elect him in 2010.
The Venezuelan caudillo's eyes are now set on Peru, where poverty has dropped to one-third of the population thanks to liberal democracy and private enterprise. On May 29, Bolivia's Evo Morales addressed a letter to a gathering of indigenous communities in the Peruvian region of Puno calling for open rebellion. During a recent indigenous uprising against government decrees that loosened restrictions on private mining and farming in the Amazonian rainforest, Nicaragua's government granted political asylum to Alberto Pizango, the rebel accused by Peru's authorities of being responsible for the death of dozens of policemen.
Chavez's strategy relies on a network of political franchises across the region: He sells potential allies the right to exploit his "21st-Century Socialism" brand in exchange for political subservience. Each franchisee adapts the product to local circumstances, which might call for exacerbating ethnic tensions (the Andes), tapping nationalistic resentments against neighboring countries (South America), or conjuring anti-American ghosts (Mexico and the Caribbean). Twenty-first-century socialism is tactically allied with non-Latin American autocracies, such as Iran and Russia.
It took Chavez's relentless ideological delegitimization of republican values and private property, and the establishment of a method for bringing about dictatorship through apparently democratic means, to consolidate his revolution. After coming to office in 1999, he used referendums and elections to do away with checks and balances. He drew up a new constitution that provided the "democratic" framework with which to replace the National Assembly, the National Electoral Council, and the courts.
Every government institution works toward controlling and instilling fear in the population. The electoral system is aimed at creating the mirage of majority support. According to Sumate, a respected election-monitoring organization, voter registration has grown by 52 percent. No independent institution has been able to verify this. Fingerprinting machines used at the polling stations allow the authorities to trace anti-Chavez voters.
Other forms of "democratic" control include the colossal expansion of the state. Almost 5 million Venezuelans -- 28 percent of registered voters -- depend on the state for their livelihood. If we add their families and the armed forces, we are talking about a majority of voters.
Chavez has gained command of three-fourths of the media. In early July, he shut down 285 radio and TV stations. The courts are another part of the "democratic" dictatorship. Of the hundreds of judges who were in office when Chavez came to power, only three remain. The new provisional judges are persecuting the opposition mayors and governors elected in 2008.
These are the ideology and the methods that Chavez has franchised. Ecuador's Rafael Correa has replaced checks and balances with subservient institutions through elections and referendums; a new constitution allowed him to seek re-election this year. Through trumped-up charges, he took over the TV stations of the Isaias family and is now moving against Teleamazonas. In Bolivia, Morales will be re-elected in December because he changed the rules through a new constitution approved in a referendum; he is using the "democratic" framework to concentrate power through intimidation and massive rural expropriations. Daniel Ortega, who rigged last year's local elections in Nicaragua, wants a new constitution to allow permanent re-election.
Venezuela's dismal economy, the drop in oil production in that country due to corruption and inefficiency, and fatigue with revolution in other countries suggest that Chavez may face substantial obstacles in the future. But if his challenge is not met with a vigorous defense of freedom by the Latin Americans themselves, the region will lose the 21st century just as it lost the 20th.