ANTIGUA, Guatemala — Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Guatemala’s capital on Saturday, setting fire to the nation’s congressional building in a show of anger over a budget bill passed this week that cut funding for health care and education.
The demonstrations in Guatemala City, which also 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 pummeled impoverished towns in Guatemala’s highlands and coastal regions on Wednesday, the country’s Congress passed a budget that cut spending on education and health in favor 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 demonstrations across the country.
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, Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, denounced the arson. “We cannot permit public and private property to be vandalized,” he said in a tweet, adding that those who committed “criminal acts” would “be punished with the full force of the law.” In an attempt to appease demonstrators, the president also said in an earlier news release that he was reviewing possible modifications to the budget.
But the frustration with Mr. Giammattei’s leadership has also reached the highest levels of his own cabinet.
On Friday, Vice President Guillermo Castillo said in a news conference that he had “little communication with the president” and offered to resign, but only if Mr. Giammattei stepped down with him. Mr. Giammattei has not responded to Mr. Castillo’s comments.
Protesters in Antigua, a city about an hour’s drive west of the capital, said they were enraged at the rampant corruption that has long flourished at every rung of their government. Last year, former President Jimmy Morales ousted a U.N.-backed commission that had been aggressively investigating high-profile cases of graft. The move was widely criticized as an effort to protect officials charged with abusing public office for their personal enrichment.
“I am upset that the country keeps getting in debt and things don’t change,” said Maria Vega, a 42-year-old teacher who brought her two sons to the protest in Antigua. “We have endured a lot over the past few months and the fact that health, education are not prioritized is frustrating.”
In Guatemala City, people held signs saying that they had “neither a president, nor a Congress” representing them and calling on all lawmakers to resign, photos on social media showed. A giant rat towered over the capital’s central plaza plastered with the president’s name. Religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church leadership, joined the cacophony of voices demanding Mr. Giammattei veto the budget.
“The lack of clarity with which Congress approved the budget is the last straw for me,” said Antonio Durán, an engineer in Antigua. “The corruption that governments in Guatemala have shown has impacted generations of people — and it’s something that we need to stop.”
Nic Wirtz reported from Antigua, Guatemala, and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City.