Hundreds of protesters have broken into Guatemala’s Congress and burned part of the building during demonstrations against President Alejandro Giammattei and the legislature for approving a controversial budget that cut educational and health spending.
The incident came as about 10,000 people were protesting in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City against corruption and the budget, which protesters say was negotiated and passed by legislators in secret while the 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 in the legislative building.
Police fired tear gas at protesters, and about a dozen people were reported injured.
“We are outraged by poverty, injustice, the way they have stolen the public’s money,” psychology professor Rosa de Chavarria said.
The amount of damage to the building was unclear. Protesters also set some bus stations on fire.
Hundreds of anti-government protesters in Guatemala have vandalised and set fire to parts of the Congress building
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) November 22, 2020
Mr Giammattei condemned the fires in his Twitter account on 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 vandalise public or private property”.
The president said he had been meeting 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 angry politicians had approved $65,000 to pay for meals for themselves, but cut funding for coronavirus patients and human rights agencies, among other things.
Protesters were also upset by recent moves by the Supreme Court and Attorney General they saw as attempts to undermine the fight against corruption.
Vice President Guillermo Castillo has offered to resign, telling Mr 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.
Mr Giammattei had not responded publicly to that proposal.
The Roman Catholic Church leadership in Guatemala also called on Mr Giammattei to veto the budget Friday.
The country’s human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas said the budget appeared to favour ministries that have historically been hotspots of corruption.
“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,” he said.
In 2015, mass streets protests against corruption led to the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina, his vice president Roxana Baldetti, and members of his Cabinet.
Both the former president and Baldetti are in jail awaiting trials in various corruption cases.