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Pro, Anti-Castro Demonstrators Clash At Panama Summit

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And as the Summit of the Americas gets underway, tensions are high between people who support and those who oppose the Castro government in Cuba. The tension has spilled into the streets, as we learn from NPR's Carrie Kahn in Panama City.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: A couple dozen activists from Cuba, Venezuela and other South American countries gathered outside a Panama City hotel. The activists denounced what they said were mercenaries and terrorists attending what was supposed to be a congenial conference of civil society participants from throughout the region. Rita Spadafora, a Panamanian conservationist who was hoping to discuss ways to develop better water policies, says the Cuban's actions have been a major distraction. This is the first year Cuba has been invited since the Summit of the Americas began two decades ago.

RITA SPADAFORA: It's a challenge, and we knew it would come with problems, but here we are. At least we're making an effort.

KAHN: Wednesday, the two opposing Cuban groups actually came to blows at a Panama City park.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in foreign language).

KAHN: Supporters of the communist regime disrupted a peaceful protest of Cuban dissidents, including some from the United States. They accused the anti-Castro protesters of being mercenaries and terrorists and accused organizers of refusing to process credentials to supporters of left-leaning governments, especially Venezuela. Dozens of Venezuelan activists joined pro-Castro supporters yesterday. They're upset with the Obama administration over sanctions it slapped on seven top government officials for alleged human rights abuses. President Nicolas Maduro says the action is U.S. aggression against his government and vowed to hand Obama 10,000 signatures demanding the sanctions' removal. But despite all of the political eruptions, civil society activists, like Sofia Montenegro of Nicaragua, say they will present President Obama and the other Latin American heads of state their demands for more inclusion in decision-making.

SOFIA MONTENEGRO: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "We need to focus on the pressing issues of the region," says Montenegro, "such as the violence engulfing Mexico." And what she says is increasing authoritarianism in the region. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Panama City, Panama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.