SAN CRISTOBAL RANCH, Mexico—Vicente Fox is defying that old Mexican tradition by which presidents become nonentities once they leave office. As Fox’s recent tour of the United States to promote his autobiography indicates, this former Mexican president is speaking out and building a front to stop Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez from spreading his revolution.

Although Fox presided over an admirable transition from the one-party era of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to multiparty democracy, he was unwilling to push through a series of unpopular but necessary reforms during his single term as president. Now the fire in his belly is back.

I recently spent a day with Fox at his family’s San Cristobal Ranch in Guanajuato state, where he is building a huge center that will serve as a think tank, cultural venue, library and consulting firm. He is enlisting the help of former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos for his campaign in favor of the rule of law and the market economy.

“Latin America lost the 20th century miserably,” Fox told me. “We cannot allow some populist autocrat to steal the 21st century from us. Chavez’s defeat in the recent referendum on constitutional reform is welcome news, but as long as we have so many people listening to the siren song of socialism because they own scant property, we will not be free.”

I asked him why, at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2005, Chavez managed to block the nations of the Western Hemisphere from creating a free trade area that might eventually eliminate all barriers to the flow of goods, services and people. “Because we were too polite and shy,” he responds. “Argentine President Nestor Kirchner allowed Chavez to bend the rules and speak for three hours instead of three minutes. My mistake was to leave the room. I should have stayed and taken more time than I was allowed to confront him head-on.”

What role has the U.S. played in Latin America in recent years? “Two factors got in the way,” Fox responded. “One was the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which made Americans shy away from immigration reform. The other factor was lack of courage on the part of President Bush on that same issue. The procrastination left a vacuum that was filled by xenophobic commentators like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, who stoked up America’s fear of the outside world.”

Fox thinks that immigration reform in the United States would have given him more political clout in the region at a time when Chavez was moving his pawns.

“The United States needs our immigrants. Who is going to pay for the baby boomers’ retirement? The governor of the state of Washington told me that if it weren’t for immigrants, their apples would rot. The California authorities admit that without Mexicans, vegetables would disappear from America’s table. Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg once said to me that New York would collapse if they (immigrants) were expelled. Mexican immigrants have even been hired to build the wall Americans want to erect in order to stop Mexican immigration! A comprehensive reform that addresses the fears of many Americans while recognizing these obvious facts would undermine the anti-American populist message south of the border.”

As we strolled through his center’s construction site and he told me about his grandfather—an American who migrated from Cincinnati to Guanajuato in search of a better life—and the seizure of much of his family’s land at the hands of the PRI, I wondered to myself why so many Latin American incumbents have shied away from confronting Chavez even after he meddled in their countries.

Can Fox pull this off, and where does he think Mexico is headed?

“I am teaming up with Social Democrats as well,” he noted, “because many of them are against Chavez’s stupidities. According to a study by Goldman Sachs, Mexico will be the world’s fifth-largest economy in 2040. Although many reforms are still pending, including ending our oil monopoly, the opening of our economy is already bearing fruit. We defeated (the populist candidate) at the last election because many Mexicans who have moved into the middle class feel they have something to protect. We cannot afford to stray from the current course if we want to become prosperous.”

It is unclear how effective Fox will be because he cannot run for office again. But, since so few Latin American statesmen have dared to engage the Venezuelan thug in recent years, Fox’s new mission cannot possibly do any harm.