Civil Society Gets Role at April Summit of the Americas in Panama

The Seventh Summit of the Americas, which takes place in Panama City on April 10, will bring together all the elected leaders of the Western Hemisphere this year along with a new, non-democratic  participant: Cuba. We can expect a lot of attention to be riveted on Panama, as media spotlight Barack Obama and Raul Castro together as the two countries move forward in the historic process of renewal of diplomatic relations.

When President Obama announced the U.S.’s new approach toward Cuba on Dec. 17, he stressed that the Panama summit would emphasize democracy and human rights – issues that are too often overlooked in the regular summits Latin American leaders hold with Cuba. These issues are ignored despite the denial of basic human rights in Cuba and abuses elsewhere, such as the jailing in Venezuela of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and the increasing political persecution of democratically elected legislators, governors and deputies with views in opposition to the Venezuelan government.

Attention by the Summit of the Americas to democracy and human rights issues will be a welcome development. And citizen groups throughout the region will have the opportunity to make their voices heard in Panama. Unlike other summits, Panama 2015 will provide a structured opportunity for civil society leaders throughout the region, including independent voices from Cuba, to engage the assembled government leaders. Along with forums for business, education and youth leaders, the summit organizers are convening a Hemispheric Forum of Civil Society. The Organization of American States (OAS), the host Panamanian government and a coalition of Panamanian civil society groups, that are collaborating to bring this about, anticipate that more than 700 civil society participants will attend two days of meetings in Panama beginning April 8, to culminate in a dialogue with government leaders on April 10. Among the topics for eight working groups, which will track the official themes of the summit, are democratic governance and citizen participation.

Representatives of civic organizations and individual social actors who wish to attend need to register now on an OAS website. The deadline for application is Feb. 28. Organizers expect demand to exceed space available, so it is important to register as soon as possible to be considered. Individuals or representatives of civic organizations do not have to be registered already by the OAS to be eligible to attend. For details on how to register, see the NDI-hosted Spanish language website for a webinar with an OAS official, or visit Summit of the Americas website and click on application process for Civil Society and Social Actor participation. Don’t miss this opportunity to make your voices heard!