Guatemala protesters torch Congress as simmering anger boils over | Latin America

Guatemala City, Guatemala – Protesters set fire to part of the Republic of Guatemala’s Congress building on Saturday after a controversial budget bill sparked a series of long-simmering crises and sparked anti-government demonstrations.

Thousands of people went to town and town squares across the country. The demands ranged from the president’s veto of the budget to the prosecution of corruption and resignations in all branches of government and in the constitutional assembly.

“We are fed up with corruption,” Karla Figueroa, a 51-year-old professional translator, told Al Jazeera at a rally in Guatemala City’s central square, where they displayed a sign calling for the resignation of 125 of the country’s 160 lawmakers held.

“It doesn’t matter which government – they are all the same,” said Figueroa.

Protester Karla Figueroa held a placard demanding the resignation of 125 of the country’s 160 lawmakers [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]The Guatemalan Congress passed the budget bill on Tuesday evening, increasing the legislature’s own grants for meals and other expenses, and cutting funding for human rights programs and the judiciary.

They also cut $ 25 million to fight malnutrition, causing national outrage. A later amendment to restore those funds failed to suppress people’s anger.

As Congress passed the budget at breakneck speed in the capital, the rains from Tropical Storm Iota flooded regions that had already been devastated when Hurricane Eta swept through Central America earlier this month.

Thousands remain in shelters, some of which have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

More than 100 indigenous villagers were buried in landslides in several regions after the storm, and subsistence crops were destroyed in large parts of the country.

Thousands of people in Guatemala were displaced after two hurricanes hit Central America this month [File: Luis Echeverria/Reuters]Guatemala has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world and the hurricanes have exacerbated hunger. For many, the cut in funding, which affects malnutrition, has been the last straw.

Calls for protests increased, as did widespread demands that President Alejandro Giammattei veto the budget bill.

When he failed to do so, Vice President Guillermo Castillo said on Friday that he had asked Giammattei to resign with him for the good of the country.

Before the protests began on Saturday, Giammattei said he would meet with various sectors and put forward budget reform proposals in the coming days.

But that didn’t slow the demonstrations. “I think this is just the beginning,” said Flori Salguero, 48, one of the more than 1,000 people who arrived in Guatemala City square well before the protest start time.

An office of the convention building is seen after protesters set it on fire [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]Salguero said she wanted Giammattei and the lawmakers who passed the budget bill to step down.

“We’re sick of so much theft. I don’t want my children and grandchildren to live in such a debt-ridden country, ”she told Al Jazeera.

Congress fire

Four blocks away, a student-led march on the way to the square had stopped and a guillotine set up in front of the convention building.

A few dozen policemen in regular uniforms stood by and watched young men climb the building, break windows, and throw incendiary devices.

Flames and smoke shot out of the windows for several minutes as protesters destroyed framed photos of politicians. The riot police appeared and gassed tears in the crowd. Then firefighters came to put out the fire.

We’re sick of so much theft. I don’t want my children and grandchildren to live in such a debt-ridden country.

Flori Salguero, protester in Guatemala City

Francisca Hernandez was unimpressed.

The 65-year-old self-employed pinata seller did not attend the protest, but went to a nearby corner to see what was going on.

“They leave us without anything to eat,” she said to Al Jazeera, referring to the congressional officials who passed the budget law.

Hernandez said she disagreed with the property being demolished because people would end up paying for it. She said she did not want Giammattei to resign, but rather to veto the budget and face Congress. “We don’t want to move backwards,” she said.

Riot police were deployed on Saturday to disperse protesters in Guatemala City [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]Giammattei went to Twitter on Saturday afternoon to condemn the vandalism.

“I repeat that people have the right to protest as the law allows. However, we cannot allow public and private property to be destroyed, ”he tweeted, adding that anyone identified as involved in the acts in question would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

While hundreds joined the group of demonstrators outside of Congress, many more stayed in Guatemala City’s central square. When the police fired tear gas, the crowds dispersed in the city center.

Byron Garcia sold many demonstrators the Guatemalan flags they carried in protest. As a street vendor, he sold face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic but switched to flags and noisemakers on Saturday.

He told Al Jazeera that he was also speaking out against the budget bill and government corruption. “It affects everyone,” he said, “but especially us poor people who have to work every day to survive.”

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