Why are Guatemalans protesting?

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Guatemalans came out to protest this Saturday, November 21. Most of the demonstration was peaceful, but a small group resorted to vandalism and managed to set fire to the Guatemalan Congress building.

But what has made Guatemalans take to the streets? The short answer is that the budget that Congress approved was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Guatemalan Congress approved the highest budget in history and much of it would be financed with public debt. This means putting our grandchildren in debt.

In March, when the pandemic began, the government of Guatemala requested loans for Q20 billion (about US $ 2.5 billion) for economic aid programs for people and companies affected by the measures adopted to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. (It may seem little but Q20 billion is equivalent to 23% of the national budget).

The months passed and the help never came. In large part because the State of Guatemala does not work. Institutional capacities are null and due to much that could exist, the State did not respond.

Congress met last Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. the approved draft budget was delivered to the deputies. A document of 127 pages. An hour later the plenary decided to change the day’s agenda to approve the budget.

The reading of the budget proposal began and at 11:00 p.m., while the Guatemalans were sleeping, they approved an urgent motion to approve the budget in a single session. By 5:30 a.m. Wednesday the largest budget in history had been approved, betraying Guatemalans.

The president, Alejandro Giammattei, has the power to veto the budget, but in the two public appearances he had, he came out to defend the budget. On Friday, the day before the demonstrations, the vice president, Guillermo Castillo, held a press conference and urged the president to veto the budget. But he also said that if they were not able to govern that both should present their resignation to Congress.

President Giammattei’s popularity has fallen dramatically. In April 83% of Guatemalans approved his management. By October, his approval rating fell to 36%.

The demonstrations will hit the government. While a group set fire to the Congress building without apparent resistance from the authorities, the government fired tear gas in the area where a group of citizens were peacefully demonstrating.

The background

The context is one of unrest among Guatemalans. The previous government withdrew the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN body that helped fight corruption, and since then the perception is that corruption and impunity are the rule.

Congress was supposed to elect Supreme Court justices, but in March 2020 the Public Ministry revealed in an investigation that Gustavo Alejos, a very powerful man accused in 5 corruption cases, met with deputies and aspiring judges to appoint judges akin to his dark interests in the Supreme Court.

A resolution of the Constitutional Court ordered Congress to elect the Supreme Court justices but asked that they exclude those aspiring judges who have a conflict of interest. Congress has refused because they hope that in April 2021 they can also take control of the Constitutional Court, which has been an obstacle to their agenda.

The main demand of the population is to demand that they reverse a budget that puts the country’s finances at risk. But it is not clear how far the discontent will go and what the final demands will be. The government must offer a solution before things get even more complicated.

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