Protesters torch Guatemala’s congress building amid unrest

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Hundreds of protesters broke into Guatemala’s congress and burned part of the building on Saturday amid growing demonstrations against President Alejandro Giammattei and the legislature for approving a controversial budget that cut educational and health spending.

The incident came as about 10,000 people were protesting in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City against corruption and the budget, which protesters say was negotiated and passed by legislators in secret while the Central American country was distracted by the fallout of back-to-back hurricanes and the Covid-19 pandemic.

About 1,000 protesters were demonstrating outside the congress building.

Video on social media showed flames shooting out of a window in the legislative building. Police fired tear gas at protesters, and about a dozen people were reported injured.

Guatemala Protest
Riot police form a cordon as flames shoot out from the congress building (Oliver De Ros/AP)

“We are outraged by poverty, injustice, the way they have stolen the public’s money,” said psychology professor Rosa de Chavarria.

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“I feel like the future is being stolen from us. We don’t see any changes, this cannot continue like this,” said Mauricio Ramirez, a 20-year-old university student.

The amount of damage to the building was unclear, but the flames initially appear to have affected legislative offices, rather than the main hall of congress.

Protesters also set some bus stations on fire.

Mr Giammattei condemned the fires on his Twitter account on Saturday, writing: “Anyone who is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law.”

Guatemala Protest
A man is detained by police near the congress building (Oliver De Ros/AP)

He wrote that he defended 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.

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

Guatemalans were angered because lawmakers approved $65,000 (£48,750) to pay for meals for themselves, but cut funding for coronavirus patients and human rights agencies, among other things.

Protesters were also upset by recent moves by the Supreme Court and attorney general they saw as attempts to undermine the fight against corruption.

Vice president Guillermo Castillo has offered to resign, telling Mr Giammattei that both men should resign their positions “for the good of the country”.

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

Guatemala Protest
Demonstrators use transits signs as shields (Oliver De Ros/AP)

Mr Giammattei had not responded publicly to that proposal and Mr Castillo did not share the president’s reaction to his proposal. Mr Castillo said he would not resign alone.

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

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 on 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,” said Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights prosecutor.

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