Guatemala - Congress burns
Even if Congress reverses the budget cuts, people are still angry about corruption
Protesters set the Guatemalan Congress on fire this past weekend. The physical damage to the building was far less than the symbolic value of the photo. Journalist Sandra Cuffe ran a long Twitter thread about the protests including more photos and videos here.
The fuel for the protest: Economic recession, hunger, anger at corruption
Recession. Like the rest of the region, Guatemala’s economy has taken a hit due to coronavirus and the various restrictions imposed on businesses this year. More than half the country’s population will spend at least part of this year below the poverty line due to the recession and the drop in remittances.
Hunger. Guatemala had some of the highest levels of food insecurity in the region even before the pandemic. The pandemic added to the hunger, doubling the estimates of the number of people who are not getting enough to eat. The two recent hurricanes have destroyed crops, creating significant risk for malnutrition in the coming 12 months.
Corruption. President Alejandro Giammattei, the Congress and the country’s top courts are all working to roll back the jurisdiction of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (FECI) and provide immunity from prosecution for government officials. The FECI is already a poor replacement for the CICIG. The effort to weaken the FECI appears to be a continuation of the pact among corrupt parties that began under the administration of President Jimmy Morales.
The spark that lit the protest: The 2021 budget
The 2021 budget that passed the Congress cut food assistance, cut money for the country’s hospital system and cut the budget for the judicial system. However, the Congress did increase spending on its own food budget as well as money for construction and infrastructure projects that benefited specific Congressional districts and construction companies allied with members of Congress.
The entire budget project was offensive to the general population. Cutting funds for hungry children while increasing money for congressional meals was particularly galling.
In addition, correctly or not (I think correctly), the population believes that the budget passed as part of a deal among the political parties related to corruption and impunity.
The government is already planning to restore some of the food funding that it had cut and the head of the Congress said this morning that the budget will not move forward as previously passed. While this may briefly quell some anger, it doesn’t deal with the underlying issues nor the impression that the budget is part of a corrupt negotiation.
Prior to the protests, Vice President Guillermo Castillo offered to resign if Giammattei did the same. Any suggestion of top government officials resigning is a red flag in terms of political stability. Giammattei has given no indications he is considering resigning.
Fanning the flames: Police violence and Giammattei’s promised crackdown
The Guatemalan security forces roughed up and arbitrarily arrested protesters who had nothing to do with the vandalism at the Congress or elsewhere. Various human rights groups plus the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were very critical of the police repression of protesters.
Instead of promising to back down, Giammattei and officials working for him are using the word “terrorism” and planning to use anti-terrorism laws to target protesters. While nobody doubts the government should detain the people who started the fire at the Congress, cracking down harder on peaceful protesters will bring more people to the streets.
Hot embers around the region
Like all protests, Guatemala’s events this past week have unique details specific to the country. At the same time, there are at least three commonalities between what happened in Guatemala and the recent protests in other countries.
Anger at corruption.
Anger at austerity and budget cuts. This factor has played a large role in the protests seen in Costa Rica and Chile in the past month.
Continued unemployment and rising hunger.
In looking for where protests may spark in the near future, keep an eye on those three factors. Anger at budget cuts, in particular, appears to be driving people to the streets who are already angry about other issues.
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