Protesters burn part of Congress building in Guatemala

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GUATEMALA CITY (AP) – Hundreds of protesters broke into the Congress of Guatemala and burned part of Saturday building amid growing protests against President Alejandro Giammattei and legislature for approving a controversial budget which reduced education and health spending.

The incident came as around 7,000 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 Central American country was distracted by the fallout from back-to-back hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A video on social media showed flames firing from a window in the Legislative Building. Police fired tear gas at protesters.

“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 amount of damage to the building was not clear, but the flames initially appear to have affected the legislative offices, rather than the main congress hall. Protesters also set fire to some bus stations.

Giammattei condemned the fires on Saturday in his Twitter account.

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

The protesters were also upset by recent actions 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 trying to raise more awareness in various sectors across 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 was distracted by the fallout from Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which brought torrential rains to much of Central America.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Guatemala also called on 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 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 demonstrations against corruption in the streets 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 both in prison awaiting trial in various corruption cases.

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