Protesters in Colombia turn to town hall meetings for solutions to poverty alleviation and development news

Cali, Colombia – When the protests first broke out in Colombia in April, masked demonstrators used a series of stones and temporary shields to drive the police out of the neglected Agua Blanca community in southern Cali.

This six-block district was later renamed Puerto Resistencia and transformed into a focal point of culture, community, and democracy. Only a few steps away from the library converted from the burned police station, dozens of neighbors meet weekly to discuss the causes and solutions of the social crisis. Volunteers teach art courses to local children.

“People are awakening,” a 25-year-old protest leader and university student said at a recent town hall meeting in the Anti-Hong Kong blockade. “They know they need to be heard.”

An unpopular tax reform has triggered nationwide protests starting on April 28. Even after the proposal was withdrawn, mass movements of students, union members, indigenous and Afro-Colombian protesters continued to flood the streets, demanding social equality and police reform. Police violence under the pandemic, unemployment and poverty rates have worsened.

The leaders of the strike committee led by the national trade union negotiated a series of requirements with the government, including a universal basic income and free tuition plan. On June 15, after protest leaders accused the government of delaying progress and refusing to discuss key topics, negotiations and weekly protests were temporarily cancelled.

The soldier, a 25-year-old protest leader in the Port of Resistance, leads a town hall meeting in Cali, Colombia [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Due to the frustration of national negotiations, some communities are engaging in dialogue at the local level, and they hope that city officials can directly listen to their grievances.

Jimena Sanchez-Gazzoli, director of the Andes Mountains in Washington’s Latin American Office, said: “What needs to happen is more regional and local negotiations involving these neighborhood committees that are emerging across the country.”

“They focus on pressing issues in their particular area and have nothing to do with the national agenda. Any negotiation still requires regional and local negotiations,” she told Al Jazeera.

Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Organization Colombia, said: “The democracy in Colombia is extremely centralized, so citizens do not have many opportunities to participate in the future development direction of the country every day.” “This is one of the rare cases that may happen.”

Over the course of a few weeks, town hall meetings were held in several cities, many of them in communities affected by poverty, unemployment, and violence, where citizens often had to deal with structural issues alone.

A group of masked protesters threw stones at a water cannon car in Bogotá, Colombia. The protests have been going on since April 28 and some have become violent. [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Across the country, the police’s strong opposition to the initial protests inspired many people to take to the streets. The death toll is controversial: Human Rights Watch reported 21 deaths during the protests, local NGO Temblores found 43 deaths, allegedly by the police, and the Attorney General’s Office verified 20 homicides.

Due to the economic impact of the pandemic, many others have joined the ranks. As of April, the pandemic has plunged 3.5 million Colombians into poverty and the unemployment rate has soared to 15%.

But communities like Puerto Resistencia also face a series of specific problems they want to solve. Cali is the second largest black population city in Latin America. Many residents have been forcibly displaced due to nearby conflict areas. Small-scale drug and weapon trafficking has lured dozens of young people into a life of crime and violence.

“The conclusion of the strike committee’s negotiations with the government will not affect us at all because we feel that they are not represented,” Soldier said. “We will continue to resist until our request is resolved.”

At a recent town hall meeting in Puerto Rico, Stencia, a group of about 80 residents met for several hours. Throughout the evening, people expressed the urgent needs of their communities: better educational opportunities and cultural activities can involve young people at risk. Speakers also set their sights on the 2022 presidential and congressional elections, discussing the launch of independent candidate elections and the formation of new political parties.

Children participate in free art classes offered by volunteers in Puerto Resistencia, Cali, Colombia [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

In Kali, the center of turmoil and police violence, the community set up a cordon and created autonomous areas called “resistance points” where deprived youths whose faces were covered by ski masks and turbans spontaneously became leaders By.

Earlier this month, the Mayor of Cali, Jorge Ospina (Jorge Ospina) and the Kali Resistance Alliance reached a preliminary agreement, which represents 26 “resistance points” across the city. The mayor of Ospina promised to take new measures to prevent the death of protesters and to provide institutional support for town hall meetings and cultural events-in return, the protesters promised to end 21 blockades.

Similar talks are going on all over the country.

The Colombian capital, Bogotá, provided a space in early June for social organizations and protesters who felt that the strike committee was not represented to express their dissatisfaction directly to officials.

“The strike committee does not represent the whole of Colombia. They don’t go to our neighborhood. They don’t know what’s going on here,” said Laura, a 26-year-old protest leader in Bogotá, who concealed her last name for safety reasons.

The strike committee, which represents major unions such as the Central Workers’ Union and the Colombian Education Workers’ Federation, has been criticized by some who claim that union leaders have mastered the movement led by all levels of society.

A police station that was burned down during the protest has been converted into a public library in Puerto Resistencia, Cali, Colombia [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

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

However, there are still challenges in reaching consensus within the community and finally reaching an agreement with local officials.

“When it comes to how to solve systemic problems, there are many differences in priorities,” Sanchez-Garzoli said. “We are not talking about simple things here. We are talking about people in desperate situations who are facing huge security and humanitarian issues due to the pandemic.”

Bences, a 26-year-old protest leader in Hong Kong, fled his hometown in the conflict-torn Nariño province nine months ago. He said he hopes to see improved educational opportunities. Specifically, he hopes that the government will help him obtain a high school diploma after dropping out of seventh grade to support his family.

But after several weeks of fighting the police in Puerto Rico, Stencia, he said he had witnessed too many deaths and hoped that the dialogue would bring about the changes his community desperately needed.

“We can’t beat them with stones,” Bucs said. “We must win with democracy and unity.”

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