Guatemala City, Guatemala – Guatemalans have returned to protest across the country for the second Saturday in a row as discontent with President Alejandro Giammattei and his government persists.

More than 2,000 people gathered in Guatemala City’s central square to call for the resignation of Giammattei and congressional officials who approved the country’s controversial budget for 2021.

“We demand that they respect our rights and that all these corrupt politicians go to Congress,” Maria Fernanda Saldana, a 22-year-old university student, told Al Jazeera at the demonstration at which protesters asked Giammattei to resign.

“The only thing they did is rob our money,” Saldana said. “We’re sick of them taking the money to help them and not doing anything for the people.”

Tensions intensified last week after Congress approved a $ 12.8 billion budget in the middle of the night to increase grants for representatives’ meals while cutting funding for human rights agencies, health care, education and justice were.

Thousands of people protested across Guatemala on November 21, and in the capital, a march by university students culminated in some protesters who set fire to part of the convention building.

Protesters set fire to part of the congress building in Guatemala City on November 21 [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]Given this widespread anger sparked by the budget, as well as the government’s mixed response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent hurricanes that have severely hit Guatemalan communities, Congress overturned the controversial budget on Wednesday.

But the protests, although smaller than last weekend, continued.

“They have never passed laws for the country,” said Angela Guzman, a 50-year-old Guatemala City resident, during the rally on Saturday.

“They only benefited from high salaries and from [corruption]”She said.” We’re here to remove the President and his cabinet. You don’t work for the people. “

Dialog started

Following the riots on November 21, the Giammattei government announced a dialogue involving think tanks and the business community to find a solution to the budget conflict.

“The President expresses his absolute openness to an inclusive dialogue that enables understanding between all areas of national life,” said the Guatemalan government in a statement, as reported by Reuters news agency.

But when the dialogue began on Tuesday, many groups, including the think tank of the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies – announced by the Spanish-language acronym ICEFI – announced that they were withdrawing from the process.

“There were problems with what they wanted and what our goals were,” ICEFI Executive Director Jonathan Menkos, who was supposed to represent the group in the dialogue process, told Al Jazeera.

“The government has the right to speak to whoever it wants,” Menkos said.

“But the need to lay down the rules of dialogue. We were told it was a technical discussion, but we found out on the morning of the dialogue that the other invited people were not from think tanks and did not have a technical analysis of the budget. “

He added, “It appeared to be organizations that supported the government.”

The dialogue is moving forward, however, and the Organization of American States (OAS) sent a delegation to Guatemala on Friday to attend.

The indigenous community of Sololá has called for a massive mobilization of the community’s residents to demand the resignation of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei for next Monday. Https://t.co/65WK91Kcxh

– Jeff Abbott (@palabrasdeabajo) November 27, 2020

The presence of the OAS in the dialogue process was requested by the Guatemalan government, although Vice President Guillermo Castillo said on Twitter that he would not attend meetings with the OAS.

On November 20, Castillo said he had asked Giammattei to join him for the good of the country.

Criminalization of protesters

Human rights groups have also raised concerns about the Guatemalan police’s response to last weekend’s protests, saying the officials used excessive force to disperse the crowd.

After the convention building was set on fire, riot police and demonstrators clashed violently and more than 30 demonstrators were arrested.

Police beat bystanders and a photographer, and two protesters each lost their left eyes after being hit by tear gas canisters, local media reported.

Anger against the government has been fueled by a controversial budget as well as Guatemala’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and two recent devastating hurricanes [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]Judge Mario Godoy ordered the release of protesters in the days following the riot, citing the lack of evidence against them. However, some of the protesters continue to be charged with the protests.

“The actions of the police were absolutely arbitrary and illegal,” Iduvina Hernandez, coordinator for security in democracy, a rights group in Guatemala City, told Al Jazeera.

“The way she acted led to various crimes that resulted in assault on protesters,” she said.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission also condemned the excessive use of force by the authorities and called for an investigation. Giammattei has not yet commented on police violence.

We are here to remove the president and his cabinet. You don’t work for people

Angela Guzman, protester

But that didn’t stop the demonstrators who were back on the streets this Saturday.

“It was amazing to see the people unite for the mission to remove the corrupt officials from Congress,” said Saldana. “We are the future of this country. What future do we have if the corrupt [officials] continue there? “

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