Hundreds of protesters demonstrating against Guatemalan lawmakers’ decisions to approve a controversial budget that cut education and health spending broke into the country’s Congress building Saturday, setting part of it on fire.
Video on social media showed large flames shooting out of a window in the legislative building in Guatemala City as police used tear gas on protesters.
“We are outraged by poverty, injustice, the way they have stolen the public’s money,” Rosa de Chavarria, a psychology professor, told The Associated Press.
Discontent had been building over the 2021 budget on social media and clashes erupted during demonstrations 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, among other things.
About 10,000 people hit the streets in front of the National Palace throughout the day Saturday to protest against corruption and a budget they say was negotiated and passed by legislators in secret.
The spending plan was approved 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.
“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 fire inside the Congress building initially appeared to have affected legislative offices, rather than the main hall of congress. Protesters also set some bus stations on fire.
President Alejandro Giammattei condemned the fires on Twitter.
“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.”
Protesters were also upset by recent moves by the nation’s Supreme Court and attorney general they saw as attempts to undermine the fight against corruption.
Vice President Guillermo Castillo has offered to resign, telling Giammattei that both men should step down “for the good of the country.” Castillo also suggested vetoing the approved budget, firing government officials and attempting more outreach to various sectors around the country.
Castillo said he would not resign alone.
Catholic Church leaders in Guatemala on Friday also called on Giammattei to veto the budget.
“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 favor ministries that have historically been hotspots of corruption.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.