Protesters set fire to Guatemala's Congress building

7,000 demonstrate against health and education cuts amid Covid and hurricane crises

Flames shoot out from the Congress building in Guatemala City.
Flames shoot out from the Congress building in Guatemala City. Photograph: Oliver De Ros/AP
Flames shoot out from the Congress building in Guatemala City. Photograph: Oliver De Ros/AP
Associated Press

Last modified on Sun 22 Nov 2020 01.06 GMT

Hundreds of protesters broke into Guatemala’s Congress and burned part of the building on Saturday amid growing demonstrations against president Alejandro Giammattei and the legislature for approving a budget that cut educational and health spending.

The protest came as about 7,000 people were demonstrating in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City against the budget, which protesters say was negotiated and passed by legislators in secret while the Central American country was distracted by the fallout of back-to-back hurricanes and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Video on social media showed flames shooting out of a window in the legislative building. According to media reports, security agents fired teargas at protesters and there were people injured.

A demonstrator runs after setting an office on fire in the Congress building.
A demonstrator runs after setting an office on fire in the Congress building. Photograph: Johan Ordóñez/AFP/Getty Images

“I feel like the future is being stolen from us. We don’t see any changes, this cannot continue like this,” said Mauricio Ramírez, a 20-year-old university student.

The amount of damage to the building was unclear, but the flames initially appear to have affected legislative offices, rather than the main hall of congress. Protesters also set some bus stations on fire.

Giammattei condemned the fires in his Twitter account Saturday.

“Anyone who is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law.” He wrote that he defended people’s right to protest, “but neither can we allow people to vandalize public or private property”.

The president said he had been meeting with various groups to present changes to the controversial budget.

Discontent had been building over the 2021 budget on social media and clashes erupted during demonstrations on Friday. Guatemalans were angered because lawmakers approved $65,000 to pay for meals for themselves, but cut funding for coronavirus patients and human rights agencies.

The vice-president, Guillermo Castillo, has offered to resign, telling Giammattei that both men should resign their positions “for the good of the country”. He also suggested vetoing the approved budget, firing government officials and attempting more outreach to various sectors around the country.

Giammattei had not responded publicly to that proposal and Castillo did not share the president’s reaction to his proposal. Castillo said he would not resign alone.

The spending plan was negotiated in secret and approved by the congress before dawn Wednesday. It also passed while the country was distracted by the fallout of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which brought torrential rains to much of Central America.

The Roman Catholic Church leadership in Guatemala also called on Giammattei to veto the budget Friday.

“It was a devious blow to the people because Guatemala was between natural disasters, there are signs of government corruption, clientelism in the humanitarian aid,” said Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights prosecutor.

He said the budget appeared to favour ministries that have historically been hotspots of corruption.