Faced with growing protests against his government and a faltering economy, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has tightened his chokehold on local media, driving some network chiefs into exile.

This month, state-run telco regulator Conatel ordered commercial web Televen to pull Mexican TV titan Televisa’s dating game show “12 corazones” (12 Hearts) and Colombian telenovela “Chepe fortuna” (Fishing for Dreams), both huge hits.

Reasons cited: “12 corazones” displays too much flesh and obscene behavior for Chavez’s tastes, while “Chepe fortuna” features a vulgar, overweight woman called Venezuela and her pet dog Little Hugo — a thinly disguised comic metaphor for the country and its increasingly unpopular leader.

It’s just the latest example of Chavez meddling in TV skeds. In December, Televen, the primetime leader in Venezuela, was ordered to yank Telemundo’s reality court show “Caso cerrado” (Case Closed), which censors deemed unfit for viewing by minors.

Before that, Televen had to drop Colombian telenovelas “El Capo” and “Rosario Tijeras” for their portrayal of drug gang violence. In 2008, Televen had to remove “The Simpsons” for being “inappropriate for children.” The network is now forced to produce its own telenovelas in compliance with a law passed in December that requires webs to fulfill a quota of national programming if they want to keep their licenses.

The tricky TV climate has forced out Televen general manager German Perez, who is moving back to Miami. He’ll become executive VP at Univision Studios on Feb. 1.

Last year, Guillermo Zuloaga, owner of Venezuela’s 24-hour news web Globovision, sought asylum in the U.S. where he and his son and business partner Guillermo Jr. are now hiding incognito.

The pair fled Venezuela in early June after Chavez ordered their arrest, citing predatory lending practices and slander among various charges.

Another Globovision shareholder, Nelson Mezerhane, whose Banco Federal was seized by the government amid liquidity problems, is also a fugitive in the U.S.

Globovision’s board has been fighting off government claims that it now has rights to a seat on the board, given its ownership of Mezerhane’s shares.

Meanwhile, Marcel Granier, CEO of Venezuela’s once dominant but now defunct broadcaster Radio Caracas Television, is struggling to save its feevee spinoff, RCTV Intl.

The spinoff was dropped by carriers a year ago after being accused of violating rules that oblige producers of national content to air all government broadcasts, including Chavez’s marathon speeches. The network’s former work force of 3,000 is down to some 500.

RCTV recently filed a request with authorities to resume cable and satellite broadcasts in Venezuela, but hasn’t received a reply.

Granier has lost hope of regaining RCTV’s terrestrial broadcasting rights. The channel shuttered in 2007 after Chavez refused to renew its license for its alleged role in a 2002 coup against him.

No doubt these men see the satirical point when “Chepe fortuna’s” Venezuela loses her dog and laments, “What will become of Venezuela without Little Hugo?” Her sister Colombia (get it?) replies, “You will be free!”