Protesters in Colombia turn to town hall meetings for solutions

Lack of progress at the national level has spurred Colombians to look to local officials to address their social concerns.

Neighbours in Puerto Resistencia gather for a town hall meeting to address the social crises in Cali, Colombia [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Cali, Colombia –  When protests first erupted in Colombia in April, masked demonstrators ousted police from the neglected Aguablanca neighbourhood in southern Cali with a barrage of stones and improvised shields.

The six-block area has since been rechristened Puerto Resistencia and transformed into a focal point of culture, community, and democracy. Steps away from an incinerated police station-turned-library, dozens of neighbours meet weekly to discuss causes and solutions to the social crisis. Volunteers teach art classes to local children.

“The people are waking up,” said a 25-year-old protest leader and university student, known as Soldier, during a recent town hall meeting at the Puerto Resistencia blockade. “They know that they need to be heard.”

An unpopular tax reform sparked nationwide protests beginning April 28. Even after the proposal was withdrawn, a mass movement of students, unionists, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian protesters continued to flood the streets with demands for social equality and police reform, fuelled by reports of police violence and rates of unemployment and poverty that have worsened under the pandemic.

A strike committee, headed by national trade unions, led talks with the government over a list of demands that include a universal basic income and a free tuition plan. The negotiations, and weekly protests, were temporarily called off on June 15 after protest leaders blamed the government for delaying progress and refusing to take up key talking points.

Soldier, a 25-year-old protest leader in Puerto Resistencia, leads a town hall meeting in Cali, Colombia [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Frustrated by national negotiations, some communities are taking dialogues to the local level, where they hope their grievances will be listened to directly by city officials.

“What needs to happen is more regionalised and local negotiations that involve these neighbourhood committees that have sprung up across the country,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“They are focused on the immediate issues in the specific area that they are in and not so much tied to the national agenda. Any negotiation would still require regional and local negotiations,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Colombia’s democracy is extremely centralized, and so there aren’t, on a daily basis, a lot of opportunities for citizens to engage in the future direction of their country,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior Colombia analyst for the International Crisis Group. “This is one of those rare instances where there’s a sense that it might be possible.”

In the span of a few weeks, town hall meetings have materialised in several cities, many of them in neighbourhoods heavily afflicted by poverty, unemployment, and violence, where citizens have often been left on their own to deal with structural problems.

A group of masked protesters hurl rocks at a water cannon truck in Bogota, Colombia protests have been ongoing since April 28, with some turning violent [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Nationwide, heavy police backlash against the initial protests inspired many to take to the streets. The death toll is disputed: Human Rights Watch reported 21 deaths during protests, the local NGO Temblores found 43 deaths allegedly committed by police and the attorney general’s office verified 20 homicides.

Many others joined because of the economic fallout of the pandemic, which pushed 3.5 million Colombians into poverty and sent the unemployment rate soaring to 15 percent, as of April.

But neighbourhoods like Puerto Resistencia also face a particular set of problems they want resolved. Many residents in Cali, the city with the second-largest Black population in Latin America, are victims of forced displacement from nearby conflict zones, and small-scale drugs and arms trafficking has lured scores of youth into a life of crime and violence.

“The strike committee ending negotiations with the government doesn’t affect us at all because we don’t feel represented by them,” said Soldier. “We’ll continue to resist until our demands are resolved.”

At a recent town hall meeting in Puerto Resistencia, a group of about 80 residents met for hours. Throughout the night, people voiced the urgent needs of their community: better educational opportunities and cultural activities that could engage at-risk youth. Speakers also set their sights on the 2022 presidential and congressional elections, with talks of launching campaigns for independent candidates and forming a new political party.

Children take part in a free art class, offered by volunteers at Puerto Resistencia, Cali, Colombia [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

In Cali, the epicentre of unrest and police violence, communities have set up blockades and created autonomous zones called “points of resistance”, where disenfranchised youth, their faces hidden by ski masks and bandanas, have emerged spontaneously as leaders.

Earlier this month, a preliminary agreement was reached between Cali Mayor Jorge Ospina and Union of Resistances Cali, a group representing 26 “points of resistance” throughout the city. Mayor Ospina pledged new measures to prevent protester deaths and institutional support for town hall meetings and cultural events – in return the protesters promised to end 21 blockades.

Similar talks are taking place throughout the country.

The Colombian capital, Bogota, in early June provided a space where social organisations and protesters who do not feel represented by the strike committee could voice their grievances directly to officials.

“The strike committee doesn’t represent all of Colombia. They don’t go to our neighbourhoods. They don’t know what’s going on here,” said Laura, a 26-year-old protest leader in Bogota, who withheld her last name out of security concerns.

The strike committee, representing leading unions, such as the Central Union of Workers and the Colombian Federation of Education Workers, has been criticised by some who claim that union leaders have taken ownership of a movement led by a cross-section of society.

A police station burned in the protests has been repurposed into a public library at Puerto Resistencia in Cali, Colombia [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

“They don’t listen to us,” Laura continued. “That’s why we’re strengthening our community and listening to each other so that we can create a list of demands.”

Yet, reaching a consensus within communities and finalising a deal with local officials still presents challenges.

“When it comes to how you resolve systemic problems, there will be a lot of differences in terms of priorities,” said Sanchez-Garzoli. “We’re not talking about something simple here. We’re talking about people in desperate situations facing tremendous security and humanitarian issues due to the pandemic.”

Benkos, a 26-year-old protest leader in Puerto Resistencia who fled his hometown in the conflict-ridden province of Nariño nine months ago, said he wants to see improved education opportunities. Specifically, he would want the government to help him obtain a high school diploma after having dropped out in the seventh grade in order to support his family financially.

But after weeks of fighting off police at Puerto Resistencia, he said he has witnessed too many deaths and hopes the dialogue will bring about the change his neighbourhood desperately needs.

“We can’t beat them with rocks,” said Benkos. “We have to win with democracy and unity.”

Source: Al Jazeera