Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez exports a form of "radical populism" throughout Latin America that poses a threat to democracy, said a top US intelligence official.
John Negroponte, during hearings on his nomination to become deputy secretary of state, warned on Tuesday that frustration in Latin America about the lack of prosperity under democratic governments could further fuel the populism advocated by Chavez.
US-Venezuela relations have suffered during Chavez's presidency. Chavez has travelled the world lambasting what he considers American imperialism and in September called US President George W Bush "the devil".
Washington has objected to Chavez's crackdown on free media and civil rights groups, and says democratic institutions under his rule have been marginalised.
Chavez is likely to be granted powers this week to issue decrees without parliamentary approval - a move that has been criticised by Venezuelan opposition parties as a step towards totalitarianism.
"His behaviour is threatening to democracies in the region," Negroponte told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Chavez's populist style has caught on in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, which have elected presidents that have bypassed trade negotiations with Washington in favour of working out deals with US rivals like China.
"I think countries like Bolivia, among others, have been under the influence of Chavez, who's been trying to export his kind of radical populism," Negroponte said
A career diplomat, Negroponte served as US ambassador to Hondura and Mexico as well as to the UN and Iraq. He has been serving as Bush's intelligence czar.
His nomination to return to the state department under secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is likely to be approved by the senate.