GUATEMALA CITY — Of all the South American countries, the one that has shown the most political instability in the past few years is, without a doubt, Ecuador. The last three elected presidents have had to leave their posts without completing their mandates, sometimes amid truly critical economic situations. Now a new president, Rafael Correa, who assumed his post only in January, faces a complex and troubled political situation, raising doubts about his ability to complete his presidential term.

Correa is part of that wave of left-wing populists who, following the example of Chávez in Venezuela, are trying to lead their countries into that ill-defined “twenty-first century socialism” that reminds us so much of earlier fascism, despite its leftist rhetoric and its avowed concern over the poorest people. Applying the same prescription used by the Venezuelan caudillo and by Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa is exerting all kinds of pressure to foist on his country a constituent assembly that—if he manages to install and steer it properly—could inaugurate in Ecuador an authoritarian regime of the type that already exists in Venezuela.

The new Ecuadorean president came to power thanks to the discontentment expressed by a frustrated citizenry, defeating in a runoff a candidate who—while opposed to socialism—did not offer any guarantees of stability, either. His message was as self-centered and Messianic as Correa’s, although undoubtedly more sensible, in terms of developing an economic policy that could be a little more realistic and constructive.

But Correa managed to win without even having an organized party with a presence in Congress, and now he is doing everything possible to impose his constituent-assembly project. His supporters have surrounded the house of Congress and, through violence, have kept it from functioning normally. Later, seeing that the opposition remained firm in its rejection of a constituent assembly, Correa managed to remove 57 of the 100 deputies, and has arranged for the installation of 22 alternates who have promised to vote in favor of his project.

The road thus seems open for another would-be Chávez to begin to build in that South American nation a replica of what already exists in Venezuela, a kind of democratic-looking dictatorship nourished by the huge amount of money the government hands to a lot of people because it controls the oil-generated revenues. In reality, however, the difficulties Correa will run into from now on are far too many, and one cannot possible predict how he will wield his absolute control of power.

In the first place, because Ecuador, although an oil exporter, does not export an amount of crude comparable to that of Venezuela, Correa does not enjoy the economic maneuverability that might allow him to buy millions of votes and consciences. And secondly, Ecuador is a country divided in two, not only politically but also geographically.

On one hand, there’s Quito, the capital, on a plain 3,000 meters high, where the country’s political activity is concentrated. But there is also Guayaquil, a hard-driving economic center that is the nation’s true engine. The two cities have been competing for a long time now in a political struggle that is, to a great degree, responsible for the country’s instability. In this sense, Ecuador resembles Bolivia, which also has two different centers—La Paz and Santa Cruz—with characteristics similar to Quito and Guayaquil.

The Ecuadorean opposition, like its Bolivian counterpart, is aware of the dangers it faces: if it allows Correa to change the Constitution and create a centralist and statist regime like the Venezuelan model, it will find a very difficult struggle later, against the concentrated power amassed by the president. That is why it is now waging a political battle that still has an unpredictable outcome.

However, as long as a large sector of the population remains dazzled by Correa’s populist promises, it will be difficult for Ecuador to follow the road of stability and progress. There will be a continuation of the changes in government, the socialist fantasies, and a self-centered “personalismo” that will increasingly lead the nation away from the rule of law.

Lamentably, the same is happening now in almost all countries in Latin America. We continue to insist on redistributive policies—take from the rich and give to the poor; we continue to increase public expenditure and the size of the State, while we forget to attract productive investments, to create more wealth.

Until we change, until the voters understand that poverty cannot be eliminated by taking from some to give to others, we shall continue to stumble along in the international concert, perhaps like quaint folk attractions, but increasingly apart from the booming development experienced, for example, in Asian countries like Vietnam or China, where the people are rapidly emerging from misery.