Hundreds of demonstrators have broken into Guatemala’s Congress and burned part of the building amid growing anger over the approval of a controversial budget that cut educational and health spending

Davies

Hundreds of demonstrators have broken into Guatemala’s Congress and burned part of the building amid growing anger over the approval of a controversial budget that cut educational and health spending.

Key points:

  • Citizens have been angered by a budget allocating large sums for politicians’ meals while cutting funding for COVID-19 patients
  • The Vice-President has called on the President to resign
  • The Catholic Church in Guatemala has weighed in, calling on the President to veto the controversial budget

The incident came as about 7,000 people rallied in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City to protest against corruption and the budget, which protesters say was negotiated and passed in secret while the Central American country was distracted by the fallout of back-to-back hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Video on social media showed flames shooting out a window in the legislative building. Police fired tear gas at protestors.

“I feel like the future is being stolen from us,” Mauricio Ramírez, a 20-year-old university student, said.

“We don’t see any changes. This cannot continue like this.”

A protester waves a Guatemalan flag as a part of the Congress building burns in the background

A protester waves a national flag as a part of the Guatemalan Congress building burns in the background.(AP: Oliver De Ros)

The extent of the damage to the building was unclear, but the flames initially appeared to affect legislative offices, rather than the main hall of Congress. Protesters also set some bus stations on fire.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei took to Twitter on Saturday to condemn the protesters’ actions.

“Anyone who is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law,” he wrote.

Police surround the Guatemala Congress building after protesters set a part of it on fire

Police surround the Congress building after protesters set part of it on fire.(AP: Moises Castillo)

He said he defends people’s right to protest “but neither can we allow people to vandalise public or private property”.

The President said he had been meeting with various groups to present changes to the controversial budget.

A couch and artwork destroyed by fire are seen inside the Guatemalan Congress building

A couch and artwork destroyed by fire are seen inside the Congress building.(AP: Moises Castillo)

Discontent over the 2021 budget had been building on social media before clashes erupted during demonstrations on Friday.

Guatemalans were angered because members of Congress approved US$65,000 ($89,000) to pay for meals for themselves, but cut funding for coronavirus patients and human rights agencies, among other things.

Recent moves by the Supreme Court and the Attorney-General, seen by citizens as attempts to undermine the fight against corruption, have also raised Guatemalans’ ire.

President under pressure to resign

Vice-President Guillermo Castillo has offered to resign and told Mr Giammattei both men should resign their positions “for the good of the country”.

Protesters gather outside Congress in Guatemala City with flags and placards

Protesters gather outside Congress in Guatemala City.(AP: Moises Castillo)

He also suggested vetoing the approved budget, firing government officials and attempting more outreach to various sectors around the country.

But Mr Giammattei has not responded publicly to that proposal and Mr Castillo has not shared the President’s reaction to his proposal.

And Mr Castillo has said he would not resign alone.

The spending plan was negotiated in secret and approved by the congress before dawn on Wednesday.

A demonstrator returns a tear gas canister fired by police near the Guatemalan Congress building

A demonstrator returns a tear gas canister fired by police in Guatemala City.(AP: Oliver De Ros)

It also passed while the country was distracted by the fallout of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which brought torrential rains to much of Central America.

The Roman Catholic Church leadership in Guatemala also called on Mr Giammattei to veto the budget Friday.

“It was a devious blow to the people because Guatemala was between natural disasters, there are signs of government corruption, clientelism in the humanitarian aid,” Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights prosecutor, said.

A man is held on the ground while being detained by police near the Guatemalan Congress building

The President says he supports citizens’ right to protest but “criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law”.(AP: Oliver De Ros)

He said the budget appeared to favour ministries that had historically been hotspots of corruption.

In 2015, mass street protests against corruption led to the resignation of then-president Otto Pérez Molina, his vice-president Roxana Baldetti, and members of his cabinet.

Both the former president and Ms Baldetti are in jail awaiting trials in various corruption cases.

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