ANTIGUA, Guatemala – Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Guatemala’s capital on Saturday and set fire to the country’s Congress building to anger over a budget bill passed this week that cut funding for health care and education.
The demonstrations in Guatemala City, which included peaceful marches in the central square, shook a nation still recovering from successive hurricanes that displaced thousands of people, destroyed homes and destroyed critical infrastructure. When the heavy rains of the second storm hit impoverished cities in the highlands and coastal regions of Guatemala on Wednesday, the country’s Congress passed a budget that reduced spending on education and health in favor of increasing grants for lawmakers.
The bill, which also proposed funding funds to fight malnutrition and cut funding for the judiciary, sparked immediate outrage and led to demonstrations across the country.
A group of protesters kicked the windows of the convention building and lit a fire that burned flames from the entrance, social media videos showed. Police officers sprayed tear gas on protesters and firefighters quickly put out the fire, according to local news reports.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei condemned the arson on Twitter. “We cannot allow public and private property to be destroyed,” he said in a tweet, adding that those who “committed criminal acts” will be “punished with the full force of the law”. In an attempt to appease protesters, the president also said in an earlier press release that he was considering possible changes to the budget.
But the frustration with Mr Giammattei’s leadership has also reached the highest levels of his own cabinet.
Vice-President Guillermo Castillo said in a press conference on Friday that he had “little communication with the President” and that he had offered to resign, but only if Mr. Giammattei resigns with him. Mr Giammattei did not reply to Mr Castillo’s comments.
Protesters in Antigua, a city about an hour’s drive west of the capital, said they were angry at the rampant corruption that has long flourished at every level of their government. Last year, former President Jimmy Morales ousted a United Nations-backed commission that had aggressively investigated high-profile transplant cases. The move has been widely criticized as an attempt to protect officials charged with abusing public office for personal gain.
“I’m upset that the country keeps going into debt and nothing changes,” said Maria Vega, a 42-year-old teacher who brought her two sons to Antigua to protest. “We have been through a lot in the past few months and the fact that health and education are not a priority is frustrating.”
In Guatemala City, people held signs saying they had no president or congress to represent and urged all lawmakers to step down, photos on social media showed. A huge rat towered over the capital’s central square, which was marked with the name of the president. Religious groups, including the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, joined the cacophony of voices calling for 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, an engineer in Antigua. “The corruption shown by the governments in Guatemala has affected generations of people – and we have to stop it.”
On Saturday evening, the Guatemala Interior Ministry published a list of 33 people arrested during the protests in Guatemala City. Six other people were in Quetzaltenango, about 70 miles west.
Nic Wirtz reported from Antigua, Guatemala and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City.