Sun 22 November 2020:
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 budget that cut educational and health spending.
Thousands of people took to city and town squares around the country with demands ranging from a presidential veto of the budget bill and prosecution of corruption to resignations across all branches of government and the constitutional assembly.
Video on social media showed flames shooting out of a window in the legislative building. According to media reports, security agents fired teargas at protesters and there were people injured.
They also axed $25m destined to combat malnutrition, igniting nationwide outrage. A subsequent amendment that restored those funds did nothing to quell peoples’ anger.
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While Congress passed the budget at breakneck speed in the capital, rains from Tropical Storm Iota were flooding regions already devastated when Hurricane Eta swept through Central America earlier this month.
The Roman Catholic Church leadership in Guatemala also called on 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,” said Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights prosecutor.
He said the budget appeared to favour ministries that have historically been hotspots of corruption.
Thousands remain in shelters, some of which have had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
More than 100 Indigenous villagers were buried in landslides in several regions after the storm, and subsistence crops were destroyed across vast swathes of the country.
Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of chronic malnutrition and the hurricanes have exacerbated hunger; for many, the funding cut affecting malnutrition was the last straw.
Calls for protests grew, as did widespread demands that President Alejandro Giammattei veto the budget bill.
When he did not, Vice President Guillermo Castillo said Friday that he had called on Giammattei to join him in resigning for the good of the country.
Before the protests began Saturday, Giammattei said he would meet with various sectors and present proposed reforms to the budget in the coming days.
But that did not curb the demonstrations. “I think this is just the beginning,” said Flori Salguero, 48, one of the more than 1,000 people who arrived in Guatemala City’s plaza well ahead of the set protest start time.
Salguero said she wants Giammattei and the legislators who passed the budget bill to resign.
Congress Building blaze
Four blocks away, a university student-led march on its way to the plaza had stopped and set up a guillotine outside the Congress building.
A few dozen police in regular uniforms stood by and watched as young men climbed the building, kicked in windows, and threw in incendiary devices.
Flames and smoke shot out of the windows for several minutes as protesters destroyed framed photographs of politicians. Riot police showed up, tear gassing the crowd, and then firefighters arrived to put out the blaze. Giammattei took to Twitter on Saturday afternoon to condemn the vandalism.
“I reiterate that people have the right to protest as allowed by law. But we cannot permit public and private property to be vandalised,” he tweeted, adding that anyone identified as having participated in the acts in question would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
While hundreds joined the group of protesters outside Congress, many more remained in Guatemala City’s central plaza. As police fired tear gas, the crowds scattered and regrouped around the city centre.
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