Protesters in Guatemala Set Fire to Congress Building Over Spending Cuts

 nytimes.com  11/22/2020 01:53:00   Nic Wirtz and Natalie Kitroeff

ANTIGUA, Guatemala  Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Guatemalas capital on Saturday, setting fire to the nations congressional building in a show of anger over a budget bill passed this week that cut funding for health care and education.

The demonstrations in Guatemala City, which also included peaceful marches in the central plaza, rocked a nation still recovering from back-to-back hurricanes that displaced thousands of people, destroyed homes and obliterated critical infrastructure. As heavy rains brought on by the second storm pummeled impoverished towns in Guatemalas highlands and coastal regions on Wednesday, the countrys Congress passed a budget that cut spending on education and health in favor of increasing lawmakers meal stipends.

The bill, which also proposed gutting funding to combat malnutrition and slashed funding for the judiciary, set off immediate outrage and led to demonstrations across the country.

One group of protesters kicked in the windows of the Congress building and set a fire that sent flames billowing out of the entrance, social media videos showed. Police officers sprayed tear gas at demonstrators and firefighters quickly put the blaze out, according to local news reports.

On Twitter, Guatemalas president, Alejandro Giammattei, denounced the arson. We cannot permit public and private property to be vandalized, he said in a tweet, adding that those who committed criminal acts would be punished with the full force of the law. In an attempt to appease demonstrators, the president also said in an earlier news release that he was reviewing possible modifications to the budget.

But the frustration with Mr. Giammatteis leadership has also reached the highest levels of his own cabinet.

On Friday, Vice President Guillermo Castillo said in a news conference that he had little communication with the president and offered to resign, but only if Mr. Giammattei stepped down with him. Mr. Giammattei has not responded to Mr. Castillos comments.

Protesters in Antigua, a city about an hours drive west of the capital, said they were enraged at the rampant corruption that has long flourished at every rung of their government. Last year, former President Jimmy Morales ousted a U.N.-backed commission that had been aggressively investigating high-profile cases of graft. The move was widely criticized as an effort to protect officials charged with abusing public office for their personal enrichment.

I am upset that the country keeps getting in debt and things dont change, said Maria Vega, a 42-year-old teacher who brought her two sons to the protest in Antigua. We have endured a lot over the past few months and the fact that health, education are not prioritized is frustrating.

In Guatemala City, people held signs saying that they had neither a president, nor a Congress representing them and calling on all lawmakers to resign, photos on social media showed. A giant rat towered over the capitals central plaza plastered with the presidents name. Religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church leadership, joined the cacophony of voices demanding Mr. Giammattei veto the budget.

The lack of clarity with which Congress approved the budget is the last straw for me, said Antonio Durn, an engineer in Antigua. The corruption that governments in Guatemala have shown has impacted generations of people  and its something that we need to stop.

Nic Wirtz reported from Antigua, Guatemala, and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City.

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