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Civil society forum overheats at Americas summit

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Jeering and insults marred a civil society forum ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, pitting supporters of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments against opposition figures.

Activists from North America to the Amazon, the Andes and the Southern Cone congregated in a humid Panama City to make recommendations on civil society participation in the region ahead of the Friday-Saturday summit.

Some wore guayaberas, the four-pocket button-down shirts typical of Caribbean nations, colorful Andean dresses or casual street clothes in a mostly friendly atmosphere at El Panama Hotel.

But things grew tense on Wednesday when some 100 supporters of Cuban President Raul Castro’s government and high-ranking regime officials shouted “sell outs” at a small group of dissidents as they showed up at the forum.

“It’s both simple and terrible. We received threats and insults. They say they are civil society but they act like a civil militia,” Cuban dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua told AFP.

Cuban Student Federation member Arianna Guerra Hernandez had this to say about the dissidents: “We won’t negotiate with mercenaries.”

Elso Montilla, president of a Panamanian association for the handicapped, said the kerfuffle forced organizers to delay a roundtable discussion on citizen participation by one day.

“Everybody must be able to give their point of view, but with respect,” she said.

The unfriendly atmosphere stood in contrast with the US-Cuban diplomatic reconciliation that will be on display with the historic meeting between Castro and US President Barack Obama.

– US condemns attacks –

But leading Cuban dissident Elizardo Sanchez said he was not surprised by the commotion because it is the first time that the Cuban government has been invited to a Summit of the Americas since its inception in 1994.

“For the first time, all civil society representatives find themselves under the same roof,” said Sanchez, head of the Cuban National Human Rights Commission, which is banned at home but tolerated by the authorities.

Sanchez said Castro’s government had seized the opportunity to send a message that it was opposed to the presence of dissident groups.

“I was greeted with jibes by four Cubans at an education workshop,” he complained.

The US State Department issued a statement on Thursday to condemn “reports of attacks targeting civil society representatives” and “harassment” of those at the forum.

“We condemn those who use violence against peaceful protesters,” department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

On Thursday, it was Venezuelans who got into the act.

Supporters of leftist President Nicolas Maduro’s government heckled Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, as she left the forum.

– No summit ‘miracle’ –

On Wednesday, dozens of pro- and anti-government protesters held rallies near the Atlapa Convention Center, which will house the summit.

“There are tensions between some groups but you must focus on the positive,” said Lina Holguin, of the Oxfam charity group.

“There’s a tendency in the continent to close spaces for civil society, in Central America, for example,” she said, adding that the forum was “crucial.”

But few forum participants hold out hope that the summit will lead to major changes amid rumors there will not be a final declaration.

“There won’t be a miracle,” Sanchez said. “This summit will have no impact on Cuba.”


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