Hundreds of protesters stormed into Guatemala’s congress and burned part of the building amid growing protests against President Alejandro Giammattei and the legislature for approving a budget that slashed spending on education and health.
Saturday’s incident came as around 10,000 people demonstrated outside Guatemala City’s National Palace against corruption and the budget, which protesters said was negotiated and passed by lawmakers in secret as the country Central America was distracted by the fallout from the comeback. consecutive hurricanes and the Covid-19 pandemic.
About 1,000 demonstrators demonstrated in front of the Congress building.
A video on social media showed flames coming out of a window of the legislative building. Police fired tea gas at the protesters and a dozen people were reportedly injured.
“We are outraged by the poverty, the injustice, the way they have stolen money from the public,” said Rosa de Chavarría, professor of psychology.
“I feel like the future is being stolen from us. We don’t see any change. It cannot continue like this, ”added Mauricio Ramírez, a 20-year-old university student.
The extent of the damage to the building was unclear, but the fire appears to have affected legislative offices rather than the main congress hall. Protesters also set fire to bus stations.
Giammattei condemned the incidents via Twitter on Saturday, saying: “Anyone who is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will be punished with the full force of law.”
He said he was defending the right of people to protest, “but neither can we allow people to vandalize public or private property.”
The president said he had met with various groups to present changes to the controversial budget.
Discontent had increased on social media during the 2021 budget and clashes erupted during Friday’s protests. Guatemalans were angry that lawmakers approved $ 65,000 to pay for meals themselves, but cut funding for coronavirus patients and human rights agencies.
Protesters were also upset by recent actions taken by the Supreme Court and the Attorney General which they saw as attempts to undermine the fight against corruption.
Vice President Guillermo Castillo has offered to step down, telling Giammattei that the two men should step down “for the good of the country”. He also suggested vetoing the approved budget, sacking government officials and reaching out to various sectors of the country.
Giammattei had not responded publicly to this proposal and Castillo did not share the president’s reaction to his proposal. Castillo said he would not quit on his own.
The spending plan was negotiated in secret and approved by Congress before dawn Wednesday. It also passed as the country recovered from Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which brought torrential rains to much of Central America.
Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Guatemala on Friday called on Giammattei to veto the budget.
“It was a devious blow to the people because Guatemala was between natural disasters, there are signs of government corruption, of patronage in humanitarian aid,” said Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights attorney.
He said the budget seemed to favor ministries that have always been hotbeds of corruption.
In 2015, mass street protests against corruption led to the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina, his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, and members of his cabinet. The former president and Baldetti are in jail awaiting trial in various corruption cases.