WASHINGTON—There was no coup attempt in Ecuador a few days ago. There was an ill-advised, violent protest by the police against a law that cuts their benefits. President Rafael Correa farcically presented himself as a victim of a premeditated attempt to overthrow his rule. The result will be a perfect opportunity to consolidate his semi-authoritarian regime.

The background to the crisis is Correa’s fiscal mess. The budget deficit—amounting to almost 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product—is a consequence of irresponsible policies by a president who is a member of Venezuelan Hugo Chavez’s political coven. This includes a doubling of public spending, defaulting on more than $3.2 billion of foreign debt in 2008 and scaring off investment dollars with revolutionary hostility—thereby drying up various sources of revenue.

Ecuador, where oil production is falling fast, generates less crude than Venezuela, so Correa is desperate to obtain funding elsewhere. In the run-up to the crisis, he asked the National Assembly to pass laws aimed at squeezing certain sectors of the state in order to boost others. Some proposals generated resistance even from his supporters, including one that would raise the amount of debt the government could incur and another that would have the banks buying government bonds with their reserves. Those laws have not yet been approved. The bill that was approved after incorporating the president’s objections to a previous version—the “public services” law—would, among other things, limit the benefits of the security forces. Hence the police protest.

The police unquestionably acted with insubordination, leaving the streets unguarded and taking over their bases. Instead of giving them an ultimatum and subsequently ordering the armed forces to seize control, Correa went to the main barracks, the Regimiento Quito 1, to confront the protesters, clownishly opening his shirt and daring them to kill him. Inevitably, tempers were raised; the protesters became dangerous, throwing tear gas at Correa.

At no point did the armed forces seek to depose him or signal that they wanted him removed (even the chief of police asked the protesters to subordinate themselves to the president). The air force did close off the main airport, but the unequivocal support given to the president by the top ranks of the military, including army chief Ernesto Gonzalez, indicates this was not a political gesture. By all accounts, only a small number of low-ranking soldiers sympathized with the police. No mainstream political party or civilian organization moved a finger to have Correa removed when the president, affected by the tear gas, checked himself into the police hospital. Only the radical left-wing group Pachakutik called for his resignation.

Once in the hospital, Correa was able to welcome supporters, issue orders to members of his government, talk extensively with foreign dignitaries, give interviews and repeatedly taunt the protesters, daring them to kill him. The police, in obvious violation of the law, would not let him leave unless he accepted their demands—which by now included amnesty for their rebellion, of course. The armed forces subsequently restored order and the rest is history.

This is not to say that Ecuador’s democracy is stable. It is under perennial threat from ideologically motivated groups that toppled Correa’s three predecessors. But it is also under threat from Correa himself. Following the Venezuelan script, soon after he was elected in 2007, he called elections for a constituent assembly and illegally dissolved Congress, replacing it with the new assembly. This body, packed with Correa supporters, drew an “a la carte” constitution that opened the door for the president to seek re-election and begin what will likely be a long rule. Exactly what took place in Venezuela and Bolivia, and what Daniel Ortega is in the process of doing in Nicaragua.

As we saw in Honduras last year, where a populist president caused a constitutional crisis by illegally trying to seek re-election, the “Bolivarian Alliance” of populists is the primary source of political instability in Latin America today. Stable governments of the center-right or the center-left have not initiated self-coups or sparked off attempts to overthrow them. Only those countries where elected presidents subverted the rules from within have triggered major political violence.

The fact that governments across the hemisphere gullibly, though understandably, reacted as if there had been a coup attempt in Ecuador indicates to what extent they expect chaos from the countries of the Chavez axis.