By George Gourlay | Contributor
Protestors in Guatemala’s capital partially set the nation’s Congress building on fire during demonstrations on Saturday which saw over ten thousand descend on the streets of the city to call for the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei following his government’s recently published budget bill.
The bill has garnered accusations of corruption as lawmakers passed cuts to spending in sectors such as health, education and social programmes while increasing their personal stipends.
Guatemalans also criticised the secrecy in which it was passed, at a time when the country is dealing with a pandemic as well as recovering from devastation caused by back-to-back hurricanes, Eta and Iota.
Guatemala was hit severely when Hurricane Eta ripped through Central America. It was followed by Tropical Storm Iota which caused widespread flooding through impoverished highland and coastal towns, displacing thousands who were forced into Coronavirus-infected shelters. It is reported that over a hundred indigenous villages were buried by landslides during the storm.
While the country’s people and infrastructure struggle to rebuild from the damage of the natural disasters, President Giammattei’s government covertly approved £50,000 to subsidise meals and other expenses for legislators while slashing the budget for relief programmes for those affected by Hurricane Eta and Storm Iota. Additional cuts were made to the budget for human rights programmes and the funds for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.
Guatemala claims one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, exacerbated further by the mass displacement from the hurricanes. An £18m programme to combat malnutrition was also cut by the budget bill though, later, Congress conceded to reinstate the fund – it did not appear to hinder the protest which started in Guatemala City on Saturday.
Protests began with peaceful marches through the streets of the city’s central plaza before a crowd of ten thousand protestors gathered outside the National Palace. Images of a giant rat bearing president Alejandro Giammattei’s name and signs reading “neither a president, nor a Congress” circulated on social-media, igniting fury online as people across Guatemala united against the government’s budget cuts.
The demonstration escalated when a group led by students began kicking in the windows of the Congress building and started setting fires in the building’s entrance and in legislative offices holding documents.
Meanwhile, outside the National Palace, the crowds of protestors were tear-gassed by police. At least a dozen were injured and hospitalised with many others arrested.
While its congress burned, the country still finds itself unable to extinguish the flames of government corruption. In 2015, similar demonstrations against the previous president, Otto Pérez Molina, and vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, resulted in the resignation of both. They are currently awaiting trial for corruption charges.
It would appear that a comparable outcome to that of 2015 would be the goal of the protests which raged through the capital last weekend.
The response to the protests
The cause has gained the support of the Roman Catholic Church leadership in Guatemala who have urged Giammattei to veto the budget.
However, the president’s resolve has been undeterred, taking to twitter to condemn the protests, he warned: “Anyone who is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law.” Meanwhile, his vice-president, Guillermo Castillo, suggested that he should resign provided that Giammattei joined him citing that he had had “little communication with the president.”
Members in the ranks of Guatemala’s Congress have strongly condemned the demonstrators, accusing them of terrorist acts.
Human rights organisations have accused the police of using excessive force on civilians who were exercising their right to protest.
On Saturday night, the country’s Interior Ministry published the names of those arrested in the capital. As for the protests, they are set to continue in other parts of the country with arrests already made in Antigua and Quetzaltenango.
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