Protesters set fire to Guatemala’s congress over 2021 budget
President Alejandro Giammattei targeted over cuts health care, education and the justice system
Guatemala City — Thousands of people staged the biggest protest yet against Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei at the weekend, with some setting fire to parts of the congress building, fuelled by anger over cuts in the 2021 budget just as the country reels from back-to-back setbacks.
Demonstrators called for Giammattei to veto the budget, which legislators approved at dawn on Wednesday even as Hurricane Iota was drenching parts of the Central American country still grappling with the destruction of a prior storm.
At 99.7-billion quetzals ($12.9bn), the budget increased public debt while cutting funding for health care, education and the justice system, outraging people from students to business leaders in a year marked by the economic crisis of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Congress allocated more money for their meals and didn't allocate money to the poor people,” said Diego Herrera, a student.
While most protesters assembled peacefully at the main square, others smashed the windows of the congress building and set fire to the interior, sending columns of orange flames rippling out, social media and images show.
A spokesperson for San Juan de Dios General Hospital, one of the capital's biggest hospitals, said it was treating 14 people for multiple injuries and teargas poisoning, after clashes with police in riot gear.
Twenty-two people were arrested, a court spokesperson said.
Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, urged investigations into the detentions, which social media videos showed as violent.
“Multiple complaints of mistreatment, excessive use of force, indiscriminate use of teargas by the Guatemalan police,” she wrote on Twitter.
Giammattei had told national television on Friday he would meet “whomever necessary” to explain the budget. As protests ramped up on Saturday, he said on Twitter he was meeting with various sectors to analyse modifications to the budget. He did not provide details.
Giammattei's vice-president, Guillermo Castillo, opposed the budget plan and has suggested both men resign.
Giammattei took office in January, shortly before the pandemic hit, forcing lockdown measures that crimped the already weak economy.
In November, two hurricanes — Eta followed just two weeks later by Iota — killed 60 people with many more missing, and destroyed crops that had sustained tens of thousands of families.
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