A few miles from the VII Summit of the Americas — far removed from presidential security and diplomatic protocol — was another meeting where students were engaged in a longtime tradition: flag burning.
The “People’s Summit,” being held at the University of Panama, is something of a stick in the eye to the main event. While the leaders of 35 nations will be engaging in (mostly) polite talk about social inclusion, energy and education, here the themes are all red meat: the U.S. embargo on Cuba, sanctions on Venezuela and the history of Yankee aggression.
“We’re here to express our solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela, which are being threatened by Washington,” said Pedro Prestán, 29, who had just finished burning some tiny U.S. flags. “We’re here to show the U.S. that Latin America is united.”
The eyes of the world are focused on the two-day official summit that began Friday, amid speculation about when and where President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro will greet each other on hemispheric soil for the first time.
But the People’s Summit — where there are more berets than ties — has the energy. The event kicked off Thursday night with a concert by Cuban troubadour Silvio Rodriguez. On Friday, Bolivian President Evo Morales wooed crowds by playing soccer on the university pitch. His team won 14-2 with the president making three goals.
“That’s how we’re going to score against Obama at the summit,” Morales said as he pushed through a scrum of reporters at halftime.
Earlier, the president told cheering, chanting crowds that the People’s Summit is an important counterbalance to the U.S. narrative in the region.
He said Washington vilifies any country that nationalizes resources, shuts down U.S. military bases or fails to adopt neo-liberal economic policies. But it was just those actions that have helped Bolivia’s economy surge in recent years, he said.
“It’s not possible that the United States can label us as good or bad countries,” Morales said.
He also said Washington had no moral authority to question how other nations are run.
“How can Obama talk about human rights if in the United States every day people are being killed and executed — immigrants and Afro-Americans?” he asked. He called the U.S. embargo on Cuba the “worst violation of collective rights” in the hemisphere.
If the satellite meeting seems like a fringe event, it could also have a real impact on this year’s proceedings. Venezuela and Nicaragua are trying to introduce language into the final declaration of the Summit of the Americas that would formally include the People’s Summit in future meetings. That, along with other proposals, are likely to scuttle a final declaration.
While the People’s Summit draws participants from around the region, this year it seems dominated by its principal backer: Venezuela.
Jesus Salazar, a 57-year-old official with Venezuela’s environment ministry, said he traveled to Panama to reject U.S. sanctions against seven Caracas officials.
“The people of Venezuela are against corruption,” he said. “If the decree had just been about that point, then the Venezuelan people would have stayed silent.”
What troubled him, however, was language in the executive order that labeled the entirety of Venezuela a national security threat. The United States has called the language a “pro forma” requirement to implement sanctions, but Salazar said it seemed overblown.
“If that’s their format for sanctions,” he said, “then they need to change the format.”
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has said he will use the summit to present Obama with 10 million signatures against the sanctions. The State Department has said that repeal is not in the cards.
Maduro spent his first day in Panama City on Friday winning over crowds in the El Chorrillo neighborhood, which was hard hit by the U.S. invasion in 1989 that ousted Gen. Manuel Noriega.
“The United States needs to apologize to Panama and Latin America,” for that action, Maduro said, as he met with people who lost relatives. He also called on the United States to indemnify the victims. The number of casualties from the invasion remains a mystery, and the government and human rights groups have released figures that range from 300 to more than 1,000.
The main event at the People’s Summit will come Saturday night when Morales, Maduro and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa (who initially said he would be skipping the main summit to protest U.S. policies) are expected to help close the meeting.
Herber Montilla, a 44-year-old Venezuelan farmer, said he was thrilled to be at the gathering, which he saw as a message about the hemisphere’s diversity. He said he was a proud socialist and supporter of Maduro.
“Just like people in the United States get to choose for themselves,” he said, “we get to choose our model of government and our president.”