MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And in Panama, just before the Summit of the Americas is to begin, well, so much for civil society. Yesterday, a civil society forum quickly descended into chaos, with supporters of the Cuban government shouting at Cuban dissidents calling them terrorists and chanting throw them out. In a separate incident, a group of dissidents came to blows with Cuban government supporters.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting, foreign language spoken).
BLOCK: Sellouts, the government supporters are shouting, maggots. One waves a dollar bill and yells, mercenaries.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Shouting, foreign language spoken).
BLOCK: Joining us from Panama City to sort through just what happened is NPR's Carrie Kahn.
And Carrie, the video of this confrontation is quite something. Punches are being thrown, heated arguments going on both sides. What led up to this?
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The short answer? A lot of history, longtime antagonism between the two groups. But here in Panama in the run up to the official summit, which will begin tomorrow, there's a forum for - as you said - civil society. There's hundreds of organizers. The official Cuban delegation was quite irate that these dissidents from the island and from the U.S. were invited and they delayed the opening of the forum yesterday for more than an hour, heckling the anti-Castro contingent. That sort of set the scene for the rising tensions in that scuffle. And speakers at the civil society forum condemned both the heckling and the confrontation. And the head of the Organization of American States, which is a sponsor of the summit, just implored all participants to engage in respectful dialogue and start listening more. It was a terrible beginning to this process.
BLOCK: And we should say, that was a big deal forum, right? Former President Bill Clinton was one of the featured speakers.
KAHN: Yes. And it just got off to a bad start.
BLOCK: Well, President Obama is going to Panama this evening. What has the U.S. State Department had to say about this violence?
KAHN: They sent out a formal statement and it was a pretty strong condemnation of the act. They called it harassment, an attack on freedom of expression. And then they also reiterated what the Panamanian president said. He put out a statement too that the summit is a time for tolerance, for all views in a democracy.
BLOCK: What does this all say, Carrie, about tensions at the Summit of the Americas? This is even before the big event when the heads of state will actually meet.
KAHN: I think it says that tensions are high and so are expectations. This is the first time Cuba has been invited to this summit. Latin American nations made it very clear three years ago that they wanted Cuba here, and with the recent warming of relations between U.S. and Cuba, that really set this year's summit for this historic meeting between, you know, President Obama and Raul Castro. It's also a great forum to vent longtime hostilities and political conflicts, and that's exactly what all sides are doing. So, not only do you have these new and rocky warming of Cuban and U.S. relations being played out on the international stage, there's also this situation with Venezuela happening right now that really turns up the heat. The Obama administration recently placed sanctions on several top Venezuelan officials due to human rights abuses, even called Venezuela a national security threat to the U.S. Well, that just set off Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. He's pledged to personally hand President Obama 10,000 signatures of supporters calling for an end to the sanctions here. So, President Obama is really walking into a complicated political situation.
BLOCK: What a sort of stain do you think these sorts of incidents that we saw yesterday in Panama City, what is the effect of those on President Obama's efforts to improve relations with Cuba overall?
KAHN: Well, it wasn't the best timing, that's for sure. The normalization talks between the U.S. and Cuba haven't been going as fast as everyone had hoped for. And that's mainly because of this big sticking point for the Cubans, which is their inclusion on the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list. President Obama did say in Jamaica that he will make a decision soon and hopefully that will get the talks rolling again. Possibly he'll even make an announcement at the summit. There's opposition for the delisting by key Republicans in Congress, so this incident that happened in the run up to the summit, it's just - it's not helping the situation.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Carrie Kahn. She'll be covering the Summit of the Americas in Panama City.
KAHN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.