Thousands are taking to the streets in Guatemala in protest against the government’s new budget plan. Many are demanding the resignation of the president.
The burning parliament says what the protesters think of those inside: Thieves Photo: Oliver De Ros/dpa
Anger over next year’s national budget drove thousands into the streets in Guatemala on Saturday. On the sidelines of a protest march in Guatemala City, several hundred mostly masked demonstrators set fire to the parliament building. Flames burst violently through some windows from inside the building, but firefighters quickly got the blaze under control.
Police officers, meanwhile, cracked down on the protesters with tear gas. According to police, 30 people were arrested. The Red Cross reported that 50 injured people were taken to hospital for treatment.
President Alejandro Giammattei immediately called for consistent action against the militant activists. Freedom of demonstration prevails in the country, but public and private property will not be allowed to fall victim to vandalism, the 64-year-old declared. "Whoever is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will face the full force of the law," he tweeted.
On Wednesday, deputies had passed a budget in an overnight action that includes cuts in social sectors. Savings are to be made in the health and education sectors as well as in the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office. At the same time, the plans call for strengthening institutions that are traditionally susceptible to corruption. For example, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Housing, where private companies have great influence.
Criticism of president and corrupt structures
Many of the protesters directed their criticism against the corrupt structures and fundamentally against President Alejandro Giammattei, who only took office in January. "Away with Giammattei," they chanted, waving the Guatemalan flag.
The budget is also under fire because it will put the country completely in debt. Compared to last year, spending is expected to increase by a quarter. As late as Saturday night, Vice President Guillermo Castillo had proposed that the president resign together "for the good of the country."
Businesses and civil society against budget
Both business associations and civil society organizations spoke out against the budget, which was passed by a coalition of parties that supports Giammattei. The Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference called the decision "irresponsible" and urged the president to veto it. In view of the corona pandemic and the destruction recently caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota, it does not meet the needs of the country, added the crisis committee of the tourism industry.
For Jordan Rodas, the human rights prosecutor, the protests are a fundamental expression of dissatisfaction with Giammattei’s policies. The mistakes made in dealing with the pandemic and doubts about the whereabouts of the millions of dollars poured into fighting it have led to the massive mobilization, as have increasing corruption scandals, he explained.
Poor care for hurricane victims
In his election campaign, Giammattei had promised to fight corruption and organized crime in his country. At the moment, however, he is also being criticized for the poor care he has given to victims of the hurricanes. The aid is said to have reached the victims too late.