Things got ugly at the Civil Society and Social Actors Forum in Panama, the host nation of this year's Summit of the Americas, which witnessed a historic meeting between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama that helped ease a decades-long diplomatic stalemate between Cuba and the United States. Various members of Cuban civil society attended the forum, which partly broke down when different factions in the Cuban delegation began arguing and even fist-fighting, causing delays in the event's roundtables on citizen participation and democratic governance.
In 2009, the Organization of American States (OAS), which sponsors the Summit, lifted its 47-year-old ban on Cuba. Although Cuba declared it would never rejoin the OAS, Havana did agree to participate in this year's Summit.
Misunderstandings and irregularities at the forum
The presence in Panama of Félix Rodríguez Mendigutia, the former CIA official who tracked down Ernesto “Che” Guevara in La Higuera, Bolivia, only served to heighten tensions. Cuban journalist Rosa Miriam Elizalde found Mendiguetía's attendance to be sickening:
La imagen de Félix Rodríguez (…) es nauseabunda. Nos recuerda al Che que yace sobre un fregadero de la ropa sucia, en la lavandería del hospital de Vallegrande, en Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Algunas de estas imágenes que tanto duelen e indignan, con un Ernesto Guevara enflaquecido y con cara de Cristo atormentado, las tomó el asesino como prueba de fe para sus jefes en la CIA.
The image of Félix Rodríguez […] is nauseating. It reminds us of Che lying in a sink full of dirty clothes in the laundry room of the hospital in Vallegrande, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Some of these photos, which are as enraging as they are painful, of an emaciated Ernesto Guevara, his face in Christ-like torment, were taken by the murderer himself as proof for his bosses in the CIA.
At the same time, the independent organization Cuba Posible announced its withdrawal from the Forum on Civil Society moments before it was scheduled to begin. Cuba Possible claimed there were significant irregularities in the accreditation process, which contributed to the “unfortunate clash at the doorway of the inaugural session”:
La delegación de la sociedad civil organizada por el Gobierno cubano decidió que si no entraban todos sus miembros, no entraría ninguno. Argumentaban que a todos los miembros de la sociedad civil opositora presentes en Panamá se les facilitaron sus credenciales, y el acceso expedito al recinto en un sitio ventajoso del mismo. Luego de reclamar activamente durante más de una hora, de manera exaltada, la posibilidad de acceder al plenario, pasaron a solicitar, además, la retirada del sector opositor de la cita. Finalmente una autoridad panameña decidió hacer pasar a todos los cubanos. Una vez dentro, continuaron protestando por lo que a todas luces constituye un trato discriminatorio. Al no ser debidamente atendidos, se retiraron de la Cumbre.
The civil-society delegation sent by the Cuban government decided that if all its members could not enter then nobody could. They argued that all the members of civil society representing the opposition in Panama had been awarded credentials and given priority access to select seating. After spending more than an hour loudly requesting access to the session, the Cuban delegation eventually asked to remove the opposition delegates. Finally, a Panamanian official decided to let all Cubans through. Once inside, they continued to protest, which clearly constituted discriminatory behavior. Having not been properly attended to, they withdrew from the Summit.
Citizen participation and governance: round table discussions disrupted
Several YouTube videos showing the moments before the scheduled opening of the roundtable session on governance show vocal complaints that “the Cuban delegation was discriminated against.” Panamanian organizers, meanwhile, have been quick to point out that delegations from “every country encountered similar logistical problems,” and they called for the session to proceed, emphasizing that there was in fact Cuban representation in the room.
“In the name of the delegation from Panama, I would like to tell you that you are not alone in having experienced difficulties,” one participant said. “The Panamanian delegation suffered the same problems. This is not a problem of discrimination—it's a logistical one—and I'm asking you to be more understanding.”
A pro-government Cuban delegation also disrupted the forum's roundtable on citizen participation by denouncing the Cuban opposition, shouting “Mercenaries out!” and “There is no forum!” The most dramatic turn of events was when a young Brazilian yelled out in the midst of the uproar:
Yo soy sociedad civil también. Yo soy ciego. Soy una persona con discapacidad. Y soy de Brasil. Yo quiero diálogo, no quiero gritar, yo sé gritar también, pero quiero dialogar con ustedes. Estamos aquí para dialogar.
I, too, am civil society. I am blind. I am a person with a disability. And I am from Brazil. I want to have a dialogue—I don't want to shout. I also know how to shout, but I prefer to have a dialogue with you. That is what we're here to do.
Cuban blogger Norges Rodríguez was one of the participants in the forum who asks, “If Cuba is one of the countries fostering a dialogue between the Colombian government and the FARC, why can we as Cubans not have a conversation amongst ourselves.” Meanwhile Taylor Escalona, another accredited Cuban posted the following on his Facebook profile:
#Cuba está un tanto indignada, no solo por el hecho de las trincheras, en un tiempo o momento que exigen dejarlas a un lado y pensar en común por el bien nacional, está indignada porque aquí debiéramos haber llegado con ánimos de dialogar y de exponer civilizadamante nuestros criterios, las discrepancias ciertamente no desaparecen de la noche a la mañana, de hecho, posiblemente nunca desaparezcan, pero (…) los argumentos pueden más que una “gritería”.
#Cuba is a little indignant, not just because of the trenches [battlefields], but at some point in time you have to leave that aside and think about the collective good. They are indignant because we should have come here ready to have a dialogue and to present our cases in a civilized way; differences certainly don't disappear overnight, maybe they never do, but (…) arguing can be a lot more than just “shrieking.”
One group of young people moved to a smaller venue and continued to debate the topic of citizen participation. Among them was a Rosa María Payá, who currently lives in the U.S. and is both a member of the anti-Cuban government faction and the daughter of opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, who died in a car accident in 2012. Payá apologized for the disruptions that prevented the round table being held as planned and added that “despite appearances, Cubans are a supportive and generous people.”
— Rosa María Payá A. (@RosaMariaPaya) abril 10, 2015
Debates over citizen health and security
The working group on the issue of security took place without incident. Cuban blogger Rouslyn Navia emphasized the importance of declaring Latin America and the Caribbean a peace zone and warned of the inherent dangers posed by foreign military bases in the region. Moreover, she called for governments to abandon the use of force and to look instead to peaceful means of resolving conflict, ending with a plea for nuclear disarmament.
When it came to the topic of health, the Cuban delegation demanded that governments “be transparent about the allocation of funding for healthcare” and requested that “they be accountable for the planning and management of financial resources and the results obtained from them.” They also denounced “the corruption and kickbacks that sapped billions of dollars earmarked for healthcare and other program,” the solution to which would be a system to monitor and assess how resources are used and measure up against basic health indicators.