GUATEMALA — President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has already begun talking about summoning a Constituent Assembly that, inter alia, would open the door to presidential re-elections. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa has just won a referendum that empowers him to elect a new Constituent Assembly, bypassing the current Constitution. In Bolivia, an assembly of this type is already in operation, although—and this is the opposition’s “fault”—Evo Morales has yet to get approval for a bill that would authorize his re-election. Ahead of them all is Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who was re-elected last December and now hopes to modify the Constitution once more, so he may remain in power for an indefinite period.

The convergence of purposes shared by these caudillos of the new populism now coursing through Latin America pushes into the background other initiatives by their administrations, which are also quite similar to each other. Those initiatives are characterized by a nationalist message, particularly on the issue of economics, which leads them to denounce “United States imperialism” and expand the presence of the state in the economy, nationalizing service industries that were privatized long ago and were working perfectly. Delivered unanimously, their message contends they are on the side of the poorest and against the wealthiest; therefore, they propose measures that tend to expropriate lands and businesses, while increasing the restrictions and controls to which private property is subjected.

To these governments, social policy consists of handing out alms to the people, winning the hearts of those who live in abject poverty by spreading money or some goods, all financed—directly or indirectly—by the oil income received and managed by the Venezuelan Chávez in Caracas. They all criticize “the political hacks” of the past, especially for their corrupt practices and their lack of transparency, and they parade themselves before the citizenry as if they were a wholly different class of people.

To anyone who knows a little about the history of our region, the most surprising fact is not the detour our nations have taken—nations that have always been politically unstable and never very willing to walk down the path of development—but the tenacity with which the old models are being replicated in Latin America today. The same economic policies of the 1960s and ’70s that drove us into successive crises are advanced today by all the caudillos named above, with completely disregard for the lessons of the past. Political models and ideas that have been tried out ad nauseam appear between the lines in Constitutions that are offered as new creations or revolutionary transformations.

Dictators of every type have emerged in our countries for more than a century, and we’d do well to remember that many of them rose to power through clean elections. But after having assumed that power, they forgot about the democracy they defended so enthusiastically when they were in the opposition, and went on to reform the existing Constitutions so as to annul the principle of non-re-election.

Carías in Honduras and Ubico in Guatemala went down that road, and so did Vargas in Brazil and Perón in Argentina. Odría in Peru, Stroessner in Paraguay, and Hernández Martínez in El Salvador also won many elections, just like the famous Somozas of Nicaragua and the ineffable Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Of course, even Fulgencio Batista won elections in Cuba.

A fascination for providential men and an ill-disguised caudillism have never left our people, who still and naively trust that the leader capable of solving once and for all their ancestral problems will soon arrive. To this near-monarchial personalism must be added another illusion, at first glance contrary but in reality complementary—the almost magical faith in the belief that changing a nation’s Constitution changes its reality.

That is why the new Constitutions are not compendiums of clear and simple rules serving to establish in our nations the much-needed rule of law, but strange blends of ambitious and abstract statements resembling campaign promises, to which are added stipulations much too concrete and specific, deliberately designed to favor certain persons or groups.

With one or two exceptions, Latin America does not have political Constitutions that clearly define the government’s domain and the private citizen’s purview; rather, they contain vague, almost invariably Baroque speeches that are practically worthless, along with provisions designed to satisfy the current caudillo. It is sad to realize how little ground we’ve gained since the nineteenth century and the stubbornness with which we cling to this way of doing politics, despite its repeated failures. I don’t think I’m being overly pessimistic when I conclude that, as long as we continue on this road, we shall advance little toward societies that are freer and more prosperous.