Hundreds of protesters protesting against decisions by Guatemalan lawmakers to approve a controversial budget that slashed education and health spending burst into the country’s Congress building on Saturday, setting a party on fire.
A video on social media showed large flames firing from a window of the Guatemala City legislative building as police used tear gas on protesters.
“We are outraged by the poverty, the injustice, the way they have stolen money from the public,” Rosa de Chavarria, professor of psychology, told The Associated Press.
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Discontent had built up over the 2021 budget on social media 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, among others.
About 10,000 people took to the streets outside the National Palace throughout the day on Saturday to protest corruption and a budget they say has been negotiated and passed by lawmakers in secret.
The spending plan was approved before dawn Wednesday. It also passed as the country was distracted by the fallout from Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which brought torrential rains to much of Central America.
“I feel like the future is being stolen from us. We don’t see any change, it can’t go on like this, ”said Mauricio Ramírez, a 20-year-old university student.
The fire inside the Congress building initially appeared to have affected legislative offices, rather than the main hall of Congress. Protesters also set fire to some bus stations.
President Alejandro Giammattei condemned the fires on Twitter.
“Anyone who is proven to have participated in criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law.” He wrote that he defended the right of people to protest, “but neither can we allow people to vandalize public or private property.”
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Protesters were also upset by recent actions by the country’s Supreme Court and attorney general, which they saw as attempts to undermine the fight against corruption.
Vice-President Guillermo Castillo offered to step down, telling Giammattei that the two men should step down “for the good of the country”. Castillo also suggested vetoing the approved budget, sacking government officials and trying to raise more awareness in various sectors across the country.
Castillo said he would not quit on his own.
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Catholic Church leaders in Guatemala on Friday also 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.