Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez greets supporters during an election rally in the central state of Guarico, 200 miles south of Caracas, on July 18, 2012. Chavez has a strong lead in most opinion polls as he seeks to beat opposition challenger Henrique Capriles and win a new six-year term in an October 7 election. (Reuters)

More than two decades after Latin America’s last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.

“What we’re seeing in Latin America are very popular presidents using their majority status to overwhelm the opposition, to erode the checks and balances,” said Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College and co-author of “Dragon in the Tropics,” a 2011 book about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “These presidents in Latin America have come in and then very cleverly manipulated the system to their advantage.”

Yet what rights groups and some political leaders call a growing threat to hard-won democratic gains has drawn a tepid response from the most vibrant and influential democracies in the Americas, among them Brazil and the United States, some observers say.

“A country that just doesn’t act is the United States,” said Santiago Canton, an Argentine legal expert who is director of the human rights program at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “And Brazil is sadly more in line with the Latin American tradition of not getting involved. They permit things to happen that shouldn’t be permitted.”

Looking the other way

Republicans in Washington have sharply criticized the Obama administration, accusing it of looking the other way in the face of creeping authoritarianism and the budding relationship that Iran and Syria are forging with Venezuela’s government, South America’s most stridently anti-American state.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who as chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee has held hearings on the dangers to regional democracy, defended the White House as “more engaged” in the region than past administrations.

But he said more support should be provided for democratic movements and to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous arm of the Washington-based Organization of American States that investigates rights abuses in the region.

The commission has rankled presidents here with reports blasting their governments for violating human rights and civil liberties, including carrying out arbitrary arrests and closing media outlets.

Though much of the commission’s recent investigations have been directed at the United States, Colombia and Honduras, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has accused the organization of being a pawn of the United States. He is leading several other countries in an effort to adopt reforms that would effectively cripple the commission.

That would herald “a darker time for the hemisphere,” Menendez said, adding that “the growing, alarming reality” is that Venezuela, led by a captivating, messianic leader with an ample oil-fueled coffer under his control, is determined to see smaller countries copy its model.

Consolidating power

In the past 20 years, pro-American, democratically elected leaders in the region have weakened democratic governance, according to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, which closely monitors several countries here. In Colombia, Alvaro Uribe pushed through a legally questionable constitutional reform to run again in 2006, and his aides are under investigation for their role in an illegal spying scandal on the Supreme Court. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori closed the Congress.

But Uribe was barred two years ago from seeking a third term, and Fujimori is now in jail.

Today, the most prominent and powerful of a handful of democratically elected leaders who enjoy near-total control of the political life of their countries is Chavez. Even as he recovers from cancer, the former lieutenant colonel is running for reelection in October’s presidential vote as he seeks to extend a presidency that began in 1999.

Other presidents who have consolidated their hold on power — controlling, among other institutions, the courts, which then give them leverage over opponents — include Ecuador’s Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

All vocally oppose the Obama administration, favor state intervention in the economy and have moved to strengthen alliances with Washington’s adversaries, among them Cuba, Iran and Russia.

On the pro-American side is Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli, a business-friendly leader who is accused of stacking the Supreme Court with supporters while using the power of the purse to reward allies.

“They are hybrid regimes, somewhere between imperfect democracies and imperfect dictatorships,” said Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla and now editor of Tal Cual, a Caracas newspaper that has an adversarial relationship with Chavez. “I prefer to define them as authoritarian and centered on the personality of their leaders. I think that in one way Chavez, Correa and Daniel Ortega all are alike in their search for power.”

In Latin America, to be sure, there is only one dictatorship – the 53-year-old Communist regime in Cuba, where there are no free elections, independent media is banned, dissidents are arrested and a vast spy apparatus monitors the citizenry.

In contrast, countries in Central America or the spine of the Andes where rights groups say democracy is threatened continue to have many of the characteristics of their fully democratic neighbors: an active news media, political opposition and civil society organizations, such as human rights and electoral observation groups. Their ability to operate in Venezuela or Ecuador is more restricted than in, say, Brazil but they provide a semblance of a vibrant democracy.

“For regimes that are dabbling in modern authoritarian means, having a limited free press, a limited opposition, is not just permitted, it’s actually necessary, because it allows them to maintain the facade of being a democratic system,” said William J. Dobson, author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” a recently published book about modern authoritarian governments.

What Chavez and other powerful presidents also have in common is that they won power and have remained in office through the ballot box.

“They don’t steal votes,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “But once elected, their exercise of power is quite different from the democratic concept of strengthening democratic institutions. Instead, what they do is rig the system so they can stay in power indefinitely.”

The Chavez model

Under Chavez, the longest-ruling leader in the Americas, a variety of laws, regulations and edicts have forced radio and television stations to close while the state’s security services have arrested some opponents or forced them into exile.

“That system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists and rights defenders are greater than they’ve ever been under Chavez,” said Vivanco, whose organization recently issued a 133-page report outlining abuses in Venezuela titled “Tightening the Grip.”

Central to Chavez’s efforts to weaken opponents were two schemes in 2004 and 2010 that packed the Supreme Court with supporters, according to the report. Venezuelan officials deny the accusations, saying they are hatched by American officials to destabilize the Chavez government.

But Venezuelan judges, from those on the Supreme Court to lower-tier courts, have publicly expressed loyalty to Chavez and what he calls his “revolution” to upend the old economic order.

“I would never betray this process, much less my commander, because I carry the blood of the revolution,” one judge, Ali Fabricio Paredes, wrote on a government Web site in 2009. “I give my life for the revolution.”

Soon after, he ordered that another judge, Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who had infuriated Chavez with one of her rulings, be put on trial.

Another judge, Eladio Aponte, who had served on the Supreme Court and recently sought exile in the United States, told a Miami television channel in April how top officials in the government would call him and other judges with instructions on how to handle delicate cases.

“They just asked for favors that I complied with,” Aponte told SOiTV. “And woe be the judge who refused to cooperate.”

Venezuelan officials say Aponte is lying and has “sold his soul” to American officials.

In his long rule, Chavez has governed by decree for months at a time and built a vast state media apparatus that heaps scorn on his critics while venerating his policies. The National Assembly has approved a series of broad, nebulous laws that rights and media freedom groups say are selectively used against critical news outlets, said Carlos Lauria, Americas program coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Many of Chavez’s policies have been applied in other countries.

Since May, Ecuador’s Correa has shut down 11 broadcasters, many of which were critical of his rule, the journalists’ committee said. He has sued other media outlets for defaming him, leading to huge fines that Lauria said have a chilling effect. Amnesty International, in a recent report, said the government had used arbitrary arrests and the judicial system to clamp down on indigenous protests.

In Bolivia, some opponents have been arrested or forced into exile. And in Nicaragua, political opponents said Ortega has resorted to electoral fraud and to manipulating the Supreme Court to permit him to run for reelection in 2011, which is forbidden by the constitution.

“You see so many of the same techniques being repeated in South America and beyond,” Dobson, the author, said of Venezuela’s influence in those countries. “I think for those who are choosing to use undemocratic means, Venezuela became an excellent laboratory to see what works and what doesn’t.”