As a crowd gathered outside the entrance of the Summit of the America’s Hemispheric Civil Society and Social Actors Forum on Wednesday—one of four sponsored gatherings being held on the margins of the summit—a small parade of youth hoisting large Cuban and Venezuelan flags approached. Chanting revolutionary slogans such as “Viva la revolucion! Viva Cuba libre! Viva Venezuela,” they quickly forced their way to the entrance, where they were blocked by de facto bouncers attempting to sift those with badges through the chaos. “All of us or none of us, damn it!” one protester yelled.
The scene was a clear manifestation of the tension leading up to today’s summit, as Cubans from two opposing political poles—both claiming to represent the real Cuba—have flooded to Panama to be heard. Big name Cuban dissidents such as Berta Soler and Miriam Celaya headed human rights forums this week sponsored by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba and Florida State University-Panama. Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez represented her new publication, 14 y medio, in the press pit—alongside Granma and other Cuban state publications. While famed Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez inaugurated the parallel People’s Summit on Thursday, his son Silvito El Libre was slated to perform at a hip hop show sponsored by the Nation Endowment for Democracy in another part of town.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela has been under fire from both sides of the Cuba divide since he invited Cuban President Raúl Castro to the summit (Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama soon after issued their historic announcement of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement on December 17). Miami hardliners and Cuban dissidents condemned the temporary detention of dissident Rosa María Payá after she arrived at the Panama City airport, as well as the perceived legitimization of Cuba’s current government by Panama. Meanwhile, the Cuban government and pro-Castro groups protested the reported arrival of Guillermo Fariñas—recently pictured with Luis Posada Carriles, who was involved in the 1976 bombing of the Cuban flight 455—and Félix Rodríguez, implicated in the death of Che Guevara.
Clashes between Cuban and Venezuelan dissidents and pro-government supporters marked the initial proceedings of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on Wednesday, two days before the summit officially begins. Cuba’s participation in the summit for the first time has sparked encounters between pro-Castro supporters and the Cuban exile community, many members of which are critical of Cuba’s invitation to the summit and the U.S. government’s warmed ties with the country.
A civil society forum, attended by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, began an hour late after Cuban officials and supporters staged a protest against the presence of Cuban dissidents, whom they referred to as “mercenaries” and “terrorists,” as reported by EFE and AP. Venezuelan representatives also left the event in a show of support for the Cuban delegation.
Also on Wednesday, police reportedly arrested 12 people after supporters of the Cuban government came to blows with dissidents outside the Cuban embassy.
Cuban activists began arriving in Panama over the weekend, when it was reported that Rosa Mariá Payá, a high-profile Cuban dissident, was detained by Panamanian authorities upon her arrival in the country. Officials later released Payá and issued an apology.
Meanwhile, a protest in a Panama City park reportedly drew approximately 300 Venezuelans who demanded the release of political prisoners in their country.
Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo López, arrived in Panama Wednesday alongside Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, the wife of imprisoned Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma. On Tuesday, prosecutors in Venezuela formally charged Ledezma with attempting to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro. The two women have decried what they describe as a deteriorating respect for human rights Venezuela and have called for the release of their husbands and more than opposition 30 mayors detained by the government. Tintori is reportedly expected to meet with President Bill Clinton while in Panama City.
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Americas Quarterly was saddened to hear that one of its former Innovators, Antonio Rodiles, was among the democratic activists detained this week in Cuba. Antonio and others were heading to a peaceful rally organized by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera at Havana’s Revolution Square. The event, titled #YoTambiénExijo (I Also Demand), was planned to be a series of open-mic presentations by independent activists about their view of Cuba’s future. Other dissidents, such as Reinaldo Escobar, were also detained—and Reinaldo’s wife, Yoani Sánchez (featured in the Fall 2014 Americas Quarterly), was prevented from leaving her house to attend. Our thoughts and prayers are with Antonio and the other dissidents who have been detained.
Due to relaxed Cuban travel restrictions that eliminated the exit visa, Brazilian film director Dado Galvo announced Tuesday that prominent dissident and blogger Yoani Sánchez will travel to Recife, Brazil, for a screening of the 2009 documentary Conexión Cuba Honduras (Connection Cuba Honduras), in which she is featured. Sánchez was granted a travel visa and will be arriving in Brazil on February 18, thanks in part to an online initiative led by Galvo, the director of the documentary, who raised funds to purchase her ticket.
Sánchez is best known for her prize-winning blog, Generación Y, which she named after the generation of Cubans born in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when names beginning with “Y” were popular. Her blog is openly critical of life under the Castro regime, and notably contains the only interview that President Obama has granted to a blogger. She has been able to avoid Cuban censorship having her friends abroad post entries that she emails to them. As one of the best-known dissidents in Cuba, many doubted that Sánchez would be able to take advantage of the January 15 exit visa law that allowed Cubans to apply for a passport without a government permit and an invitation letter from abroad. After 20 failed attempts, Sánchez announced via Twitter that she had been granted a passport just 15 days after the law went into effect.
While other notable dissidents, such as Ángel Moya, have been denied the right to travel abroad, this latest development represents a dramatic shift in Cuban policy. The change in travel laws on the island is expected to help spur the economy, and while restrictions are still in place for certain professionals such as athletes and party leaders, the change will allow some of Cuba’s most vocal critics to spread their message abroad.
Cuban police detained at least seven people on Tuesday immediately following the funeral service of Oswaldo Payá, a leading opposition figure who died in a car crash on Sunday. Shouting anti-government slogans, Guillermo Fariñas and other activists were detained upon exiting the San Salvador Catholic Church in Havana. Fariñas has staged hunger strikes to protest the state repression of dissidents; in 2010, he won the European Union’s Sakharov human rights award, which was granted to Payá in 2002.
According to official accounts, Payá and another dissident, Harold Cepero Escalante, died when their car hit a tree travelling near the town of Bayamo, in eastern Cuba. However, a number of dissidents—including some arrested on Tuesday—have raised suspicions of foul play. Payá’s 23-year-old daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, questioned the official version of the death in a speech at the funeral.
Payá is best known for launching a petition known as the Varela Project to call for greater civil liberties in Cuba, including the right of assembly and freedom of expression. Following the funeral service, Payá’s son said that his father had received multiple death threats over his career as a dissident, especially after the Valera Project.
The Cuban government released the last of the Ladies in White yesterday after more than 70 members of the group were detained over three separate incidents one week ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. The opposition group was founded by relatives of those detained during the Black Spring of 2003 and its members are known to walk through western Havana after mass each Sunday wearing all white to demand the release of political prisoners.
Nineteen of the group’s members were detained on Saturday evening during a march in central Havana. The following morning an additional 36 protesters were arrested, including the group’s leader, Bertha Soler, and her husband, who remains in custody. After mass, 22 more women and two men were arrested as they began marching toward the city center.
Many dissident groups see the Pope’s two-day visit as an opportunity to increase pressure on the Castro regime and draw attention to human rights abuses committed by the government. In a statement responding to the detention of the Ladies in White yesterday, the White House called on Cuban authorities to “abandon their tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent.” The Cuban government has not issued a statement of the matter.
The detentions over the weekend are indicative of the tension building between the government and dissident groups prior to the Pope’s arrival on March 26. Last Thursday, the Cuban police raided the Church of Charity in Central Havana and evicted 13 protesters who had been occupying the space since for two days.
Delegations from the United States and Cuba will meet today to continue discussions on the Migration Accords initiated in 1994. The immigration discussions are in keeping with the “Obama administration’s commitment to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States,” noted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This marks the third time that the two countries will meet to discuss immigration since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The discussions had been suspended by the Bush administration in 2003 and were reinstated by the Obama administraion in July 2009.
The resumption of talks comes as the U.S. is negotiating the release of Alan Gross, a contractor for a U.S.-based global consulting firm, who has been held by Cuban authorities under charges of espionage for the past six months for allegedly distributing telecommunications equipment to dissidents in Cuba. The U.S. delegation is likely to use the meeting to press Cuban officials to release Gross. Secretary Clinton noted that Gross’s continued detention “is harming U.S.-Cuba relations,” and despite the resumption in talks, expectations are low that any significant progress will be made on the 16-year-old accords. "The migration talks have the potential to serve as a medium for resolution of the long-standing issues between the two nations," said Paul Wander of the Inter-American Dialogue "but they are unlikely to do so because real diplomatic developments remain stymied by the fact that both countries feel as though the ball is in the other's court."
Thirty-nine members of the Havana-based human rights group Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) were reportedly assaulted yesterday during a peaceful protest to commemorate International Human Rights Day. An estimated 200 government supporters attacked the women near the Museum of the Revolution as they set free a group of doves and distributed copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
An additional ten people were detained in a separate protest in a park in the neighborhood of El Vedado during which a British diplomat was also forced to leave the premises by pro-government groups. According to Ladies in White director Laura Pollán, this year’s attacks were the worst since the group was founded in 2003. The organization was founded to protest the detention of 75 dissidents during Cuba’s Black Spring.
Susan Purcell, Director for the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami in Florida perceives mob violence as a new political move by the Castro Regime to prove "that the demonstrators' views are not shared by the general population”. The assault comes three weeks after dissident blogger Reinaldo Escobar, who's married to blogger Yoani Sanchez, was attacked by a pro-government mob.