PANAMA CITY — Cuba's first-ever inclusion into the Summit of the Americas was expected be to the headline-grabbing news at the two-day gathering here that starts Friday.
So far, it's delivered.
There have been fisticuffs between rival Cuban protesters, an angered Cuban delegation over credentials and reports of the killer of Cuban icon Che Guevara mingling with opposition leaders outside the meetings.
And that's all before President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro have even set foot in this tropical city.
In the most talked-about incident, a group of anti-Castro Cuban demonstrators on Wednesday planned to lay flowers at a bust of Cuban patriarch José Martí near the Cuban embassy here when they were confronted by a group of pro-Castro activists.
TV newscast images showed the two factions clashing in fistfights. The pro-government demonstrators shouted "terrorists" and "assassins" at their rivals as they chased them down the street. Those beaten included women.
Event organizers and the U.S. State Department denounced the incident.
"We are deeply concerned by reports of attacks targeting civil society representatives in Panama for the Summit of the Americas exercising freedom of speech and harassment of those participating" in the forum, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement. "We condemn those who use violence against peaceful protesters."
Also Wednesday, Cuban delegates at the summit protested when reports surfaced that Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA-backed paramilitary officer dispatched to capture and kill Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, was meeting with opposition groups in Panama City. His appearance here couldn't be independently verified.
Much of the tension stems from the increased role civil society is playing at the summit. A three-day parallel forum on civil society has drawn Cuban opposition leaders and a speech by former President Bill Clinton. Another independent forum, focusing mainly on Cuba, was held at Florida International University's Panama City campus and drew well known dissidents, such as Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White protest group, and Guillermo Fariñas, who has participated in two dozen hunger strikes in Cuban jails.
"For the first time, civil society, something the Cuban government doesn't recognize, that it labels 'mercenaries' and 'terrorists,' we're here," Soler told reporters after the meeting. "We're recognized by the country of Panama."
The inclusion of Cuban opposition leaders doesn't sit well with Cuban officials. In Havana, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel called it "inadmissible" that Cuban officials are sharing space at the summit with dissidents, calling them "illegitimate representatives" and "mercenaries of the empire."
But those voices are not going away anytime soon. U.S. officials have placed increased importance on the role civil society — from opposition figures to student leaders to academics — will play in finding solutions to the region's thorniest issues.
"It's critical that leaders be held by its civil society groups, including, obviously, civil society groups of the United States, as we interact with our own stakeholders," Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. Latin American official, said last week. "Without that, we're just living in our echo chamber."
In a speech Wednesday evening, José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, which organizes the summit, reiterated the importance of civil society in the gatherings.
"Civil society is one of the most important representations of the people," he said.
The real fireworks may still be on the way, when Obama and Castro arrive. No meetings between the two are yet scheduled, though both camps have hinted at a likely meeting. Obama is also expected to attend a civil society forum on Friday.