Obama meets with Cuban, Venezuelan gov't opponents

Panama City, Apr 11 (EFE).- U.S. President Barack Obama met here with Cuban and Venezuelan government opponents on the eve of his scheduled face-to-face talks with Cuban leader Raul Castro, calling on regional governments not to fear civil society and to respect differences of opinion.

Obama, who arrived in Panama on Thursday from Jamaica to attend his third Summit of Americas, visited the Panama Canal; met with Central American leaders, including the host nation's president, Juan Carlos Varela; and took part in business and civil society forums on Friday.

In that latter gathering, he receiving a round of applause when he said that "strong nations don't fear active citizens; strong nations embrace and support and empower active citizens."

Obama said that when the United States has spoken out in support of a person who is in prison merely for questioning the actions of those in power it does so because it's "the right thing" to do.

"Civil society is the conscience of our countries," Obama said. "And we should reject violence or intimidation that's aimed at silencing people's voices."

"We believe that strong, successful countries require strong and vibrant civil societies," said Obama, whose speech was interrupted by applause on several occasions.

Obama also used the civil society forum to defend the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, saying he hopes the steps taken since December to restore full diplomatic relations after a more than 50-year rift "create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people" despite the differences between the nation's governments.

The U.S. president is scheduled to meet Saturday with Castro on the sidelines of the 7th Summit of the Americas to further that reconciliation process.

"As we move toward the process of normalization, we'll have our differences, government to government, with Cuba on many issues - just as we differ at times with other nations within the Americas; just as we differ with our closest allies. There's nothing wrong with that."

Obama, meanwhile, said generally that "human rights and fundamental freedoms are still at risk" in the region and in other parts of the world, but he did not specifically mention any cases affecting Venezuelan government opponents or Cuban dissidents.

The White House, which did not provide details on Obama's meeting with the government opponents, said that among those attending the gathering were Cuban moderate dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua, Cuban dissident Laritza Diversent and Venezuelan attorney and human rights activist Rocio San Miguel.

On Tuesday, 28 international and Latin American human rights organizations issued a statement accusing leftist-led Venezuela of "intimidating and harassing human rights defenders and making unsubstantiated allegations that they are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy," New York-based Human Rights Watch, one of the signatories, said.

The normalization process with Cuba is temporarily overshadowing growing tensions between Washington and Venezuela, Cuba's main ally.

Those tensions were exacerbated last month when the Obama administration decided to impose economic sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials accused of rights abuses.

In that March 9 executive order, Obama also referred to leftist-led Venezuela as a threat to U.S. national security, although the White House has since backtracked and said that South American nation is not a threat.