Friday, April 10, 2015

Cuban Exiles and Protesters Clash in Panama (Pt. 1)

Last Wednesday a group of Cuban exiles from Miami and accompanying Cuban dissidents visiting Panama were attacked at Porras Park in the capital city. The group of exiles and dissidents staged a demonstration at the park in front of the Cuban embassy which was immediately met by Cuban and Panamanian supporters of the Cuban government. The counter-demonstrators had been alerted through online media that one of the exiles at Porras Park was Felix Ismael Rodriguez Mendigutia, a former Cuban militant deemed a violent "mercenary" against the Cuban government. Hostility was further fueled by charges that the dissident demonstrators were also "traitors" against the Cuban government.

Spanish-language media, as expected, attempted to suggest that the attack on the Cuban exiles and dissidents was planned by the Cuban government or its clandestine intelligence agency, but failed to produce any supporting evidence. Instead, the violence that occurred was most likely spontaneous, and partially triggered by an online media campaign against Cuban exiles and dissidents coinciding with the arrival of young Cuban activists visiting Panama for the Summit of the Americas.


Civil society groups from all over the Americas began arriving this week to Panama's capital city for the Summit of the Americas. It is the first Summit to include Cuba as a participant since its inception in 1994. Parallel forums on Civil Society took place on Wednesday and Thursday before the official start of the Summit on Friday. Inside these forums, civil society groups from Cuba would for the first time meet face to face with Cuban dissidents invited to attend. But, things didn't go smoothly.

On Tuesday, Official civil society groups from Cuba arrived in Panama already aware that Cuban dissidents such as Guillermo Fariñas and Berta Soler would be attending the Summit forums. They immediately held a press conference [video] stating that the invited dissidents did not represent the Cuban people and were "mercenaries" of the United States. In their hands they each held copies of a small newspaper distributed by the Union of Cuban Journalists. The tabloid  titled "Mercenaries in Panama" [PDF] included an editorial alleging that Cuban dissidents in Panama "receive direct financing from outside [of Cuba]" and "don't have any real connection with our people." Articles inside reminded readers when, in 2010, the top American diplomat for Cuba Jonathan Farrar wrote of seeing "little evidence" that Cuban dissidents "have much resonance among ordinary Cubans." Another page included eight profiles of Cuban dissidents (Fariñas and Soler among them) detailing their alleged links to Cuban exile groups and other international organizations.

Many of these allegations are true, and some are exaggerated. But, for years the Cuban government has waged a consistent media campaign against dissidents and have mostly won the propaganda war inside Cuba. Cuban dissidents then have little option but to look outside of Cuba for support, and often find it in Miami. While some help from Miami is often worthwhile, they should also consider the implications of getting public help from official enemies of the Cuban government. In those cases, while financial support is extremely helpful, an individual dissident or group could be sacrificing their entire legitimacy back home.

Civil society groups gathered early at the El Panama hotel for the start of the parallel forums of the Summit. Delivery of accreditation badges had begun at 8am, but several Cuban civil society representatives had trouble acquiring their badges due to technical problems. As they waited for a solution, news had broken out on social media that Cuban exile militant Felix Rodriguez was in Panama.

The previous day, Cuban exile members of M.A.R. Por Cuba left Miami International Airport for Panama. Along with them came five Cuban dissidents representing different organizations on the island, and the president of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, Orlando Gutierrez Boronat. Among the dissidents was Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, better known as Antunez. In recent years, Antunez has become admired by hard-line Cuban exiles for his intransigent rhetoric against the Cuban government. Expecting his arrival, Antunez was among the eight dissidents profiled in the tabloid "Mercenaries in Panama." On Wednesday afternoon, M.A.R. Por Cuba held a press conference at their hotel. In the audience was Cuban exile Felix Ismael Rodriguez Mendigutia, a controversial figure better known for his militant past and involvement with the capture and execution of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Rodriguez and M.A.R. Por Cuba were in Panama to attend a meeting the next day hosted by former Florida representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart. But, unknown to all of them, the presence of Rodriguez in Panama was already news on social media and causing outrage among Cuban activists at the Summit.

A photo of Rodriguez with Antunez taken in Miami was being distributed on social media. A press conference was held that afternoon condemning the presence of Rodriguez and his close association with Antunez who was invited to attend the Civil Society forums. Cuban activists and supporters were demanding Panama deport Rodriguez.

Already frustrated by accreditation problems, and angered by the presence of Rodriguez and "mercenaries" at the Summit, Cuban civil society representatives vented with a large protest outside the El Panama Hotel. They shouted for the removal of the Cuban dissidents attending the Forum. They refused to share space with dissidents like Guillermo Fariñas. On the cover of their tabloid, Fariñas was featured in a photo next to Cuban exile terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. Both had attended a forum at the University of Miami in 2013. Eventually, the protest ended when all Cuban representatives decided to leave the Civil Society Forum. But, the indignation would find a new place to reappear in the street of Panama.

Video of violent clashes by Estrella de Panama
Video by NTN24
Video by AmericaTeVe

[Photo: Orlando Gutierrez Boronat (left), President of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, fights with Alexis Frutos Weeden (right), former Cuban Embassy spokesman in Panama. Photo source: La Prensa]

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