PANAMA CITY — The Americas summit that ended here Saturday will almost certainly be remembered for its symbolism of reconciliation. President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shook hands and sat down for talks. The region’s leaders cheered. It didn’t look that difficult.
But in the days building up to the encounter, at other events on the sidelines of the main summit, there were reminders that reconciliation between Cubans and Cubans will take much longer.
While Castro spoke warmly of Obama in his remarks and pledged a willingness to discuss “any issue” with the United States, Cuban government supporters went to extreme lengths to stifle the communist nation’s critics at parallel events during the week.
It was a sign of the degree to which President Obama’s opening to Cuba appears to have left it somewhat unsure how to handle growing pressures and expectations for change after 57 years of Castro rule.
But while Havana’s participation at the Summit and face-to-face engagement with the United States appeared new and forward-looking, its treatment of critics was not.
Cuba’s presence at the 35-nation gathering produced extraordinary scenes of contrast. At a swank hotel in one part of the city Thursday, communist officials invited U.S. business executives to visit the island and invest there, mixing with global corporate icons including Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim.
But at another event for “civil society” groups where Cuban dissidents were invited to speak, chanting crowds led by Cuban officials disrupted the gathering, denouncing opponents of the communist government as “mercenaries” and “worms.”
Such tactics have been used for decades to silence and intimidate dissidents on the island, but their export to Panama was a jarring spectacle for other Latin Americans caught up in the scrum and the shoving.
Participants from other countries who came to deliver talks about women’s health or community security — topics that had nothing to do with Cuba — came away frustrated that the pro-Castro groups tried to monopolize the event and block the entrance.
“Many who came to participate weren’t mad that someone was protesting — they were mad that the protesters weren’t letting others participate,” said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who witnessed the scenes.
“Cuba has never participated in an event like this, and it felt like they don’t understand civil society or how to engage with it,” she said. “But this is part of the process of change.”
The pro-Castro delegation that came to Panama, led by prominent Cuban cultural figures, said event organizers denied credentials to several of the dozens of its members. It said U.S. diplomats had recruited Cuban dissidents favorable to the president’s Cuba policies to present them as representatives of “post-Castro civil society.”
The pro-Castro groups insisted that they were the “true” representatives of Cuban civil society.
U.S. officials said they were not surprised that the Cuban groups responded that way to the presence of the dissidents, whom Obama made a point of meeting when he attended the civil society forum.
“Strong nations don’t fear active citizens,” Obama told them. “Strong nations embrace and support and empower active citizens.”
“It’s not as if active citizens are always right — they’re not,” he continued. “Sometimes people start yelling at me or arguing at me, and, I think, you don’t know what you’re talking about. But sometimes they do. And the question is not whether they’re always right; the question is, do you have a society in which that conversation, that debate can be tested and ideas are tested in the marketplace.”
In recent years, and with official encouragement from Raúl Castro, Cubans have begun to speak more critically of their government, and the island’s dissident activists find ways to publish their views and reach larger audiences than ever before.
But the Castro government draws a clear line against any form of assembly or public protest, and the Communist Party remains the only legal political party on the island. Cuban security agents use short-term detentions to prevent demonstrations against the government, but far fewer government opponents are kept in prison for long sentences as they were in the past.
Critics of Obama’s new course with Cuba say he’s rewarding Castro without guaranteeing concessions on democratic reforms. But U.S. officials say their new approach, and especially expanded trade with the island, will bring the kinds of political changes that five decades of broken relations failed to achieve.
Cuba’s political culture, known for its heated argument, passionate gesticulation and short tempers, has not been known for tolerance and civil discourse. Faced with U.S. sanctions and hostility, the Castro government has stifled dissident for years in the name of Cuban “unity,” viewing political disagreement as a threat to the country’s stability. If Obama’s open hand and easing tensions have made the government more willing than ever to listen to criticism and opposing viewpoints, as Castro told him, it wasn’t the message that came through outside the summit halls.