With a day to go before the 7th Summit of the Americas draws leaders from 35 countries, this Central American city was hosting two disparate groups: the region’s CEOs and luminaries of the Latin American left.
It’s also hosting two deeply divided groups: those for and against the Castro regime in Cuba, some of whom were involved in a brawl Wednesday at a local park. On Thursday, the State Department said it was concerned about “harassment” of those exercising freedom of speech at the meeting.
In a swank hotel, business leaders from around the region were gathering for the 2nd CEO Summit of the Americas to discuss food security, women’s economic empowerment and social responsibility.
A few blocks away, at a sprawling university campus, organizers were preparing to launch the “Summit of the People,” which will focus on issues such as the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba and the sanctions on Venezuela.
While the CEO summit was attracting the likes of PepsiCo Latin America CEO Laxman Narasimhan and U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, the campus was awaiting the arrival of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was expected play a soccer match there on Friday. The presidents of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba were expected to attend the campus event after the end of the official summit.
The meetings come amid growing expectations about Cuba’s participation in the summit for the first time since it was launched in 1994. On Wednesday, a group of Cuban dissidents were confronted by supporters of the island’s communist regime. The confrontation led to pushing, shoving and shouting, and landed a few people in detention.
In a statement Thursday Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said the confrontation produced a “sickening start to this summit.”
“It’s reflecting poorly on Panama, reminding us of the true nature of the Castro regime, and showing just how naive President Obama’s Cuba policy is,” he said.
The State Department on Thursday said it was concerned about attacks on civil society representatives on the eve of the summit.
“We condemn those who use violence against peaceful protesters,” said Marie Harf, the State Department’s acting spokeswoman.
Harf praised Panamanian officials for reiterating that the “summit is a time for tolerance of all views in a democracy.”