Americas

Cuba, Venezuela tensions rise in run-up to hemispheric meeting

Police officers line up as they guard a pro-Venezuela demonstration in Urraca Park, Panama City, Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Panama City will host the VII Summit of the Americas on April 10-11, which tensions between Caracas and Washington threatened to overshadow a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Police officers line up as they guard a pro-Venezuela demonstration in Urraca Park, Panama City, Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Panama City will host the VII Summit of the Americas on April 10-11, which tensions between Caracas and Washington threatened to overshadow a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. AP

As leaders from 35 nations prepare to descend on this Central American nation for the seventh Summit of the Americas, there were indications that the reunion could be heated.

Cuba’s official delegation to a civil society meeting stormed out of an event Wednesday as they accused organizers of dragging their feet on credentials even as they welcomed “mercenary” opposition members.

The protests come amid expectations about Cuba’s participation at the event for the first time since it was launched in 1994.

Speaking at a civil society forum, former President Bill Clinton, who organized the first such summit in Miami 21 years ago, hailed Cuba’s inclusion this year, calling it “the beginning of reconciliation in the Americas.”

But outside, the environment was less than civil. Cuban and Venezuelan protestors chanted “Go away Clinton” and chased at least one man — who they called a Cuban dissident — out of the parking lot.

The theme of this year’s summit is social inclusion but activists come with their own agenda. A small Nicaraguan delegation protested that nation’s proposed inter-oceanic canal. A larger Venezuela contingent, often shouting in unions with their Cuban counterparts, were protesting the U.S. decision last month to levy sanctions on seven officials through an executive order that called the Andean nation an “extraordinary” threat to U.S. national security.

William Galvis was among a group shouting “We’re not a threat, we represent hope.”

“We’re here to protest the U.S. blockade against Cuba and the executive order that calls Latin American nations a threat when we are nothing but peaceful,” said Galvis with a network of Venezuelan civil society organizations.

With just days to go before the main event kicks off Friday, there are indications that it could be heated.

A group of Cuban dissidents, including Leticia Herrería, of the Ladies in White and Orlando Gutiérrez, with the Cuban Democracy and Resistance Directorate, were reportedly assaulted Wednesday as they tried to lay flowers at the bust of Cuban independence hero José Martí close to the Cuban embassy. Some of them were also detained for questioning, according to reports.

In Havana, Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel said it was “inadmissible” for Cuban officials to share the stage with dissidents, who he called “non-legitimate representatives.”

As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has vowed to rally support around rejecting the sanctions, on Thursday, a group of two dozen former presidents and leaders plan to present a letter denouncing human rights violations in Venezuela.

Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, one of the organizers of the initiative, said he hopes to raise the alarm and push Latin American leaders into taking a tougher stance on Venezuela.

“There is a complicit silence regarding this situation,” he said.

As a backdrop to the fisticuffs and shouting was a meeting of some 800 members of civil society groups from 30 countries.

Organization of American States General Secretary José Miguel Insulza called the representatives an important link to helping spread the hemisphere’s wealth and helping reduce inequality.

“Dialogue is not only speaking,” he said. “It is also, to a great degree, listening.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gamez Torres contributed to this report.

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