Protests in Guatemala over budget cuts to health, education

Part of the Congress building is set on fire during an anti-government protest in Guatemala City on Nov 21, 2020.
Part of the Congress building is set on fire during an anti-government protest in Guatemala City on Nov 21, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

GUATEMALA CITY • Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Guatemala's capital on Saturday, setting fire to the nation's congressional building in a show of anger over a budget Bill passed this past week that cut funding for healthcare and education.

The protests in Guatemala City, which 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 pummelled impoverished towns in Guatemala's highlands and coastal regions last Wednesday, the country's Congress passed a budget that cut spending on education and health in favour 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 widespread protests.

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, President Alejandro Giammattei denounced the arson, saying: "We cannot permit public and private property to be vandalised." In an attempt to appease demonstrators, the President had said in an earlier news release that he was reviewing possible modifications to the budget.

Protesters held signs saying they had "neither a president, nor a Congress" representing them and calling on all lawmakers to resign, photos on social media showed.

Last week, Guatemala's Congress approved an almost US$13 billion (S$17.5 billion) budget, the largest in the country's history.

Most of the funds will go to infrastructure tied to big business. Some US$3.8 billion will be used to fight the coronavirus pandemic but less than 15 per cent of it has been invested.

Mr Giammattei's estranged vice-president, Mr Guillermo Castillo, last Friday said he had asked the President to resign with him.

Mr Giammattei, a 64-year-old doctor, swept to power in January promising to clean up corruption and fight organised crime. But his presidency has been marred by controversies.

Mr Antonio Duran, an engineer, said: "The lack of clarity with which Congress approved the budget is the last straw for me.

"The corruption that governments in Guatemala have shown has impacted generations of people - and it's something that we need to stop."

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2020, with the headline 'Protests in Guatemala over budget cuts to health, education'. Print Edition | Subscribe