By: Este Chep, BTS Lead Cooperant

The situation in Guatemala have been quite arduous over the last few weeks, as the country reels from the devastating impacts of two major hurricanes, mostly felt in the departments of Izabal, Alta Verapaz, Quiché, Huehuetenango and parts of Zacapa and Chiquimula.  The neighbouring territories of Honduras and Nicaragua have fared much worse, taking a direct hit from both hurricanes at their peak force.  

Amidst largely community-led rescue and emergency response efforts, Guatemalans woke on November 19 to the news that the national budget for 2021 had been approved by Congress the night before.  As folks slept, Guatemala’s congress approved a nearly $17 billion CND budget which saw cuts of approximately $33 million CND to national nutrition programs while at the same time allocating over $65 million CND for personal meals to members of congress.  

Further to this, billions of dollars were allocated for government branches including over $7 million CND to the Ministry of Communication, Infrastructure and Housing, where corruption and the “disappearance of funds” is widely known.  At the same time, only 15% (~ $1.3 billion CND) of the recommended amount was allotted for the COVID-19 vaccine.  Cuts were also made to the Human Rights Attorney’s Office (PDH) as well as hospitals, education, and the judiciary. The impacts of such actions fall disproportionately among Indigenous communities as well as other marginalized groups including women and children; nearly 50% of Guatemalan children experience chronic malnutrition, over 58% of the population lives below the poverty line with 79% of those being Indigenous communities.  This happens in a country where 0.001% of the population own 56% of the country’s wealth.  

In this context, on Saturday November 22 thousands of people took to the streets nation-wide to manifest their anger and denounce such a shameless act by 125 out of 144 members of Congress who voted to approve this budget.  Calls for the resignation of those in Congress who voted in favour, as well as the resignation of President Giammatei, are part of the widespread demands that erupted in the demonstrations that saw the taking and setting on fire of the Congress.  The police response against demonstrators, including the far majority of peaceful protestors in the National Palace plaza was overly forceful and included violent arrests, and the tear-gassing of families and children.  At least two protesters have lost an eye after being shot in the face by a tear-gas canister, many others were wounded, beaten, and arrested.    

Calls for the joint resignation of President Giammattei and Vicepresident Castillo along with top ministers came from Vicepresident Guillermo Castillo himself on Friday November 20, in anticipation of the widespread indignation across the country.  Guatemalans are demanding justice in face of months of brutal disregard by the Guatemalan government who has failed to provide basic necessities during the pandemic crisis as well as two major natural disasters and at the same time has indebted future generations while enriching itself and the country’s elite.  On Monday November 23,  President of Congress Allan Rodriguez announced the “suspension” of the proposed budget.  Seeking to quench the protests, it is yet to be seen (though very unlikely) whether or not this will put an end to the anger and social unrest.  The Guatemalan government has labeled the torching of the Congress building a terrorist act, and arbitrary detentions by National Police forces have allegedly continued to take place since Saturday’s protests. 

BTS partner organizations have stood in solidarity with all sectors of the population seeking justice and demanding change.  Monday, November 23 was called as a national day of strike, and there are future calls for demonstrations throughout the week.  We will continue to inform you on this situation as it unfolds and ask you to please stay vigilant of what transpires as people in Guatemala fend for themselves and rebuild throughout the pandemic, after two major hurricanes, and through the sacking they continue to experience by those in power.