Latin American nations must join together to protect democracy against a "creeping authoritarianism" that has been taking root in the region, a senior Bush administration official said Tuesday.

Robert Zoellick (search), designated by President Bush for the State Department's No. 2 position, cited in particular the actions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search).

Zoellick, who has served as Bush's chief trade official since 2001, said Chavez has been carrying out anti-democratic activities in the same way that former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori (search) did during the 1990s.

"I think it's a very dangerous course for these countries," Zoellick said, testifying before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing.

Chavez has closely aligned his country with Cuba and has embraced President Fidel Castro's rhetoric.

"The imperialist forces are starting to strike against the people of Latin America and the world," Chavez said in a speech two weeks ago to a gathering in Brazil.

Chavez has accused the United States of meddling in a recall referendum last year and of supporting a military coup that almost drove him from power in 2002. The Bush administration has denied both allegations.

Zoellick said a new breed of authoritarians follows similar patterns. "You win the election, but you do away with your opponents, you do away with the press, you do away with the rule of law, you pack the courts," he said.

He said pro-democratic changes adopted by the Organization of American States in 1991 were designed to protect elected governments against military coups and should be altered to deal with a trend toward authoritarianism.

His comments offered a view of the challenges the United States faces in Latin America that was not heard earlier. His testimony could herald a significant departure in hemispheric policy.

Chavez, he said, wants to portray his relationship with the United States as comparable to "David and Goliath." He added that the United States "shouldn't be afraid to say, 'Well, he's taking away liberties."'

Zoellick said the governments elected by Venezuelans before Chavez became president in 1999 did not serve the people and thus made possible the election of Chavez.

What is happening in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America, Zoellick said, reflects the upward mobility of people who are asserting their rights in the democratic era in Latin America that began replacing military rule a generation ago.

"What we're seeing now is that people who are on the margins of the traditional society are using some of the democratic openings and they are saying, 'Look, I want my share. I want my piece of this."'

He said the United States should identify itself with these people. But, he said, "we can't do it for them."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., expressed concern that China could become the chief importer of Venezuelan oil, replacing the United States, which now relies on Venezuela for 13-15 percent of its petroleum imports.

This could leave the United States scrambling for oil, Nelson said.

Zoellick dismissed that suggestion, saying the United States could buy oil from producers that now supply China.