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Protesters torch Guatemala’s Congress building amid unrest

Smoke shoots out from the Congress building after protesters set it on fire in Guatemala City.
Smoke billows from the Congress building in Guatemala City after protesters set it on fire Saturday.
(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

Hundreds of protesters broke into Guatemala’s Congress and burned part of the building 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 a window of the legislative building. According to news reports, security agents fired tear gas at protesters, and several people were injured.

Giammattei condemned the fires on Twitter on Saturday.

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A migrant caravan from Central America that has drawn the ire of the Trump administration moved slowly north Thursday, advancing beyond the Mexican town of Mapastepec in southeastern Chiapas state.

“Anyone who is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law,” he tweeted. He added 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 budget.

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.

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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 of the country.

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

The spending plan was negotiated in secret and approved by Congress before dawn Wednesday. It also passed while the country was distracted in the aftermath 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.

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“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 Jordán Rodas, the country’s human rights prosecutor.

He said the budget appeared to favor ministries that have historically been hot spots of corruption.


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