Guatemala protesters torch Congress as simmering anger boils over

A contentious budget bill pushed thousands into the streets to demand an end to corruption, among other grievances.

Guatemala City, Guatemala – Protesters set part of the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala building on fire Saturday, after a controversial budget bill brought a series of long-simmering crises to a boiling point, spurring anti-government demonstrations.

Thousands of people took to city and town squares around the country with demands ranging from a presidential veto of the budget bill and prosecution of corruption to resignations across all branches of government and the constitutional assembly.

“We’re tired of corruption,” Karla Figueroa, a 51-year-old professional translator, told Al Jazeera at a rally in Guatemala City’s central plaza, where she held a sign calling for the resignation of 125 of the country’s 160 legislators.

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

Protester Karla Figueroa held a sign calling for the resignation of 125 of the country’s 160 legislators [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

Guatemala’s Congress passed the budget bill Tuesday night, increasing lawmakers’ own stipends for meals and other expenses and cutting funding for human rights programmes and the judiciary.

They also axed $25m destined to combat malnutrition, igniting nationwide outrage. A subsequent amendment that restored those funds did nothing to quell peoples’ anger.

While Congress passed the budget at breakneck speed in the capital, rains from Tropical Storm Iota were flooding regions already devastated when Hurricane Eta swept through Central America earlier this month.

Thousands remain in shelters, some of which have had 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 across vast swathes of the country.

Thousands of people in Guatemala have been displaced after two hurricanes hit Central America this month [File: Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of chronic malnutrition and the hurricanes have exacerbated hunger; for many, the funding cut affecting malnutrition was the last straw.

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

When he did not, Vice President Guillermo Castillo said Friday that he had called on Giammattei to join him in resigning for the good of the country.

Before the protests began Saturday, Giammattei said he would meet with various sectors and present proposed reforms to the budget in the coming days.

But that did not curb 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’s plaza well ahead of the set protest start time.

An office of the Congress building is seen after demonstrators set it on fire [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

Salguero said she wants Giammattei and the legislators who passed the budget bill to resign.

“We are tired of so much theft. I don’t want my kids and my grandkids to live in such an indebted country,” she told Al Jazeera.

Congress blaze

Four blocks away, a university student-led march on its way to the plaza had stopped and set up a guillotine outside the Congress building.

A few dozen police in regular uniforms stood by and watched as young men climbed the building, kicked in windows, and threw in incendiary devices.

Flames and smoke shot out of the windows for several minutes as protesters destroyed framed photographs of politicians. Riot police showed up, tear gassing the crowd, and then firefighters arrived to put out the blaze.

We are tired of so much theft. I don't want my kids and my grandkids to live in such an indebted country.

by Flori Salguero, protester in Guatemala City

Francisca Hernandez was unfazed.

The 65-year-old self-employed pinata saleswoman was not participating in the protest, but had walked up to a nearby corner to see what was going on.

“They are leaving us without anything to eat,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the congressional representatives who passed the budget bill.

Hernandez said she did not agree with the property destruction because people would ultimately end up paying for it. She said she does not want Giammattei to resign but to veto the budget bill and stand up to Congress. “What we want is to not move backwards,” she said.

Riot police were deployed to disperse demonstrators in Guatemala City on Saturday [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

Giammattei took to Twitter on Saturday afternoon to condemn the vandalism.

“I reiterate that people have the right to protest as allowed by law. But we cannot permit public and private property to be vandalised,” he tweeted, adding that anyone identified as having participated in the acts in question would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

While hundreds joined the group of protesters outside Congress, many more remained in Guatemala City’s central plaza. As police fired tear gas, the crowds scattered and regrouped around the city centre.

Byron Garcia sold many protesters the Guatemalan flags they carried to the protest. A street vendor, he has been selling face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, but switched to flags and noisemakers Saturday.

He told Al Jazeera that he opposed the budget bill and government corruption, too. “It affects everybody,” he said, “but especially us poor people who have to work every day to survive.”

Source: Al Jazeera