NEW YORK - Will Washington's policy towards Latin America be genuinely different from past U.S. administrations if Barack Obama is elected as the next president in November? To some experts on Latin America, the answer is no. Others believe that the U.S. role would be far more positive.
"I don't think Obama is devoting a lot of energy to focus on Latin America. That may be due to the scope of the current economic crisis," Forrest Hylton, the author of two books, "Evil Hour in Colombia" and "Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Colombia," told IPS. "But I am hopeful, because he is highly rational and pragmatic about many questions."
Hylton, who is also a scholar at New York University, said many of those specialising in research and writing on Latin America have been increasingly concerned about the current U.S. role in the region, and want to see a positive change in Washington's policies.
"Take advantage of an historic opportunity to improve relations with Latin America," Hylton and other Latin America scholars said in a letter sent to Obama Tuesday. "Become a partner, rather than an adversary, concerning changes already underway [in Latin America]."
The letter sent to Obama in anticipation of a Democratic victory next Tuesday, Nov. 4, was signed by nearly 400 academicians engaged in policy research on Latin America, including Eric Hershberg, president of the Latin American Studies Association, the world's largest group of scholars on the region.
"We offer our congratulations on your campaign," they said in the letter. "Just as the people of the United States have begun to debate basic questions regarding the sort of society they want, thanks in part to your own candidacy, but also owing to the magnitude of the current financial crisis -- so too have the people of Latin America."
In their letter, the academics tried to draw a parallel between the candidate's slogan for "hope and change" in the United States with the aspirations of millions of people in Latin America who have won struggles for economic and social justice in their countries.
"The current impetus for change in Latin America is the rejection of the model of economic growth that has been imposed in most countries since the early 1990s, a model that has concentrated wealth, relied unsuccessfully on unrestricted market forces to solve deep social problems and undermine human welfare," the signers of the letter said.
That message more or less resonates with the position stated by Obama in his campaign speeches. He has been consistently attacked by his opponents for his rhetoric on tax increases for the rich and lifting up the so-called middle class. For his position on the economy, the liberal Democrat has been dubbed a "socialist" and "Marxist".
On Latin America, Obama has pledged to immediately roll back key sanctions imposed by President George W. Bush against Cuba over the last several years and called for a "new alliance of the Americas" in which Washington's southern neighbours would no longer be treated "as a junior partner".
He also called for a "substantial increase" in U.S. aid to the region channeled in ways that would reduce what he called the "back-breaking inequality" between rich and poor and promote "bottom-up development" -- although this pledge was made before the current economic crisis in the United States escalated dramatically.
"Instead of engaging the people of the region, we've acted as if we can still dictate terms unilaterally," Obama said in a major speech on Latin America in May.
The group of academics also rejected the current U.S. policy of domination in Latin America, praising the role of new democratic governments there and noting that the contemporary "movements for change" in the region derived their strength from active participation of workers, peasants, women and indigenous communities.
"They are neither puppets, nor blinded by fanaticism and ideology, as caricatured by some mainstream [media] pundits," they told Obama in the letter. "To the contrary, these movements deserve our respect, friendship and respect."
In his speeches, Obama has promised to reshape U.S. foreign policy, including towards Latin American countries with whom the Bush administration has adopted a hostile attitude. He has been repeatedly attacked by the right-wing media here for suggesting that there is nothing wrong with talking with the popular Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Reflecting on the U.S. role in Latin America, Hershberg, the president of LASA, said most people in the region see the United States as "an aggressor, the guarantor of an international economic system that works against them rather than for them -- the very anti-thesis of hope and change."
In the 1970s and 80s, U.S.-backed military regimes in the region committed gross violations of human rights, including extra-judicial killings of democracy activists and mass imprisonments of the leaders of movements for social justice.
Despite its rhetoric on democracy and freedom, the U.S. government remains hostile to countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and others where leaders of social justice movements have come to power with the support of the vast majorities of their citizens.
Most recently, both Bolivia and Venezuela expelled U.S. envoys from their capitals amid accusations that they were plotting with internal opposition groups to overthrow the two popular governments.
The academics said the U.S. must renew its active support for human rights everywhere, including its allies in the region, such as Colombia, Peru and Mexico, noting that, "unfortunately, in the eyes of many Latin Americans, the United States has come to stand for the support of inequitable regimes."
They also called for new steps to ensure academic freedom at home and to lift the ban on the exchange of ideas with scholars in Cuba, amid hopes that Obama might be able to enhance mutual understanding and cooperation in the hemisphere.
To Hylton, all this would not be possible unless there's a strong and effective grassroots movement in the United States to keep a check on the Obama administration.
"A strong progressive labour movement would force Obama to implement our agenda," he said, "but I do not see that is on the horizon."