ANTIGUA, Guatemala – Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Guatemalan capital on Saturday, torching the country’s Congress building in a protest of anger over a budget bill passed this week that slashed health care funding and education.
The protests in Guatemala City, which also included peaceful marches in the central plaza, rocked a nation still recovering from consecutive hurricanes this displaced thousands of people, destroyed houses and critical infrastructure erased. As heavy rains from the second storm hit poor towns in Guatemala’s highlands and coastal regions on Wednesday, the country’s Congress passed a budget that slashed education and health spending in favor of a increased meal allowances for legislators.
The bill, which also proposed to drain funding to fight malnutrition and cut funding to the justice system, sparked immediate outrage and led to protests across the country.
A group of protesters kicked windows of the Congress building and set ablaze that caused flames to rise through the entrance, videos on social media showed. Police officers sprayed tear gas at protesters and firefighters quickly put out the blaze, local media reported.
On Twitter, the President of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, denounced the arson. “We cannot allow public and private property to be vandalized,” he said. said in a tweet, adding that those who commit “criminal acts” would be “punished with the full force of the law”. In an attempt to appease protesters, the president also said in a previous press release that he was looking at possible changes to the budget.
But the frustration over Mr Giammattei’s leadership has also reached the highest levels in his own cabinet.
Vice President Guillermo Castillo said in a press conference on Friday that he had “little communication with the president” and offered to step down, but only if Mr Giammattei stepped down with him. Mr. Giammattei did not respond to Mr. Castillo’s comments.
Protesters in Antigua, a town about an hour’s drive west of the capital, said they were furious at the rampant corruption that has long flourished at every level of their government. Last year, former president Jimmy Morales ousted UN-backed commission who were aggressively investigating high-profile transplant cases. The move has been widely criticized as an effort to protect officials accused of abusing public office for personal gain.
“I am upset that the country continues to go into debt and that things do not change,” said Maria Vega, a 42-year-old teacher who brought her two sons to the protest in Antigua. “We have suffered a lot in recent months and the fact that health and education are not a priority is frustrating.”
In Guatemala City, people held up signs saying they had “neither a president nor a congress” to represent them and calling on all lawmakers to step down, photos showed on social media. A giant rat dominated the central square of the capital covered with the name of the president. Religious groups, including leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, joined in the cacophony of voices calling on Mr. Giammattei to veto the budget.
“The lack of clarity with which Congress approved the budget is the last straw for me,” said Antonio Durán, engineer at Antigua. “The corruption that Guatemalan governments have shown has impacted generations of people – and it’s something we must stop.”
Nic Wirtz reported from Antigua, Guatemala, and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City.