EspañolNearly 200 people gathered in Panama City on Wednesday, April 8, ahead of the seventh Summit of the Americas, to demand that the Venezuelan government respect human rights and release political prisoners.
Mitzy Capriles, wife of jailed Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, joined the demonstration, as well as Panama’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) Guillermo Cochez, Ecuadorian National Assembly Member Andrés Páez, and Venezuelan student leaders.
Approximately 20 meters away from the gathering, a group of socialist activists and trade unionists held a counter-protest, claiming the Venezuelans were tarnishing the Summit with their demonstration. The activists labelled the rival group liars for denying the progress they claim socialism has brought to Venezuela.
The protests continued simultaneously, separated by a cordon of at least 20 local police officers. Nevertheless, a Venezuelan protester reported being beaten and insulted by the socialist activists.
Andrés Pérez, a Venezuelan pilot for Copa Airlines who lives in Panama, told the PanAm Post that he was on his way to the demonstration when a group of five people from the opposing camp confronted him.
When he objected one of them reportedly kicked him. The police then intervened and asked Pérez to stay away, and no one was arrested.
Students Throw Down the Gauntlet
The protest against the government of Nicolás Maduro, convened by the opposition party Popular Will (VP) and the Panamanian Committee for Human Rights, was bolstered by political figures and student activists.
They expressed their solidarity with Venezuela, and promised to continue the fight in international bodies to improve democratic conditions in the country. Protesters carried placards with the legend “SOS Venezuela” and “Enough Bullets.”
Páez assured the audience that the American Democratic Parliamentary Alliance (APDA) will seek to bring a judgement against Maduro in the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN Milos Alcalay also argued that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Inter-American Democratic Charter, should be applied in defense of Venezuelan citizens.
Capriles told the crowd that the Venezuelan government has been unable to prove its charges against Ledezma, Daniel Ceballos, or VP leader Leopoldo López, who both remain under arrest.
She also linked Venezuela’s plight to the experience of Cuba, calling on the US government to make talks with Havana contingent on democratic reforms.
Alongside Capriles, young Venezuelan university leaders elicited cheers from the crowd with their speeches in solidarity with Venezuelan opposition figures exiled in Panama.
Hasler Iglesias, student union president of the Central University of Venezuela, demanded that the heads of state at the Summit take action for the maintenance of democracy in America.
Carlos Carrasco of the Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB) meanwhile criticized Latin-American leaders who remained silent about human-rights abuses in Venezuela. “Someday, we will be in your place, and we will do better than you,” he said.
Eloi Araujo, secretary general of the Los Andes University student body, promised exiled opposition members in Panama that the Venezuelan student movement would remain outspoken and undaunted in confronting the Maduro government.
Representatives from Panama, among them Eduardo Vallarino, a member of the country’s Committee for Human Rights, emphasized that the responsibility for defending fundamental rights rests with the leaders of all nations.
As such, the university students have delivered a report to the Summit’s Youth Forum, in which they detail “a crisis of democracy in Venezuela” and report the ongoing imprisonment of 47 students arrested in 2014’s protests.
Around 20 individuals formed the rival demonstration a few meters away, shouting viva Chávez in reference the the former Venezuelan president, and blasting out speeches through loudspeakers.
Alejandro Jhon, a member of a trade union of Coca Cola workers, accused the opposition of being violent. “They have come to Panama to participate in the Summit disguised as civil society, when they have actually come as a violent group to take our streets,” he said.
“They have no other goal than making the government of Nicolás Maduro look bad, and we’re not going to accept that,” he added.
Jhon told the human-rights protesters to “go catch a plane back to Venezuela.”
The union activist agreed in the democratic right to register dissent, but argued that the opposition activists shouldn’t use the occasion of the OAS Summit to do so.
Nevertheless, he also told the PanAm Post that he believed that the Summit should not take place, saying that “we must bury it, so it’s finished.”
Jhon instead called on the demonstrators to attend the Summit of the Peoples, a parallel event that will gather social, indigenous, and labor movements. The meeting, held from April 9 to 11, will be attended by Presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa of Bolivia and Ecuador respectively.
Translated by Rebeca Morla. Edited by Laurie Blair.