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Guatemala's controversial budget 'shelved' amid protests

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image copyrightReuters
image captionThere were fresh anti-government protests in Guatemala City on Sunday

The Speaker of Congress in Guatemala has said a controversial budget that triggered protests during which parts of the Congress building were set on fire on Saturday will be shelved.

Speaker Alan Rodríguez said Congress would not send the budget to the president to sign and it would therefore not come into force.

He made the announcement after fresh protests on Sunday.

Protesters were angry that spending on health and education had been cut.

Speaker's power queried

In a pre-recorded message broadcast at midnight local time (06:00 GMT Monday), Mr Rodríguez said that leaders of some of the parties represented in Congress had agreed to shelve the budget for the sake of Guatemala's stability.

He was surrounded by 16 lawmakers from parties that back the government of conservative President Alejandro Giammattei.

Mr Rodríguez did not say if Congress would draw up a new budget or what changes it would make ahead of a December deadline for the budget to be passed into law.

Opposition lawmakers also questioned whether it was in the Speaker's power to shelve the budget, which was passed by 115 out of 160 members of Congress.

Big business over health?

Critics of the budget said it prioritised big infrastructure projects over spending on health, which they argued was badly needed at a time when the country continues to battle the spread of the coronavirus.

image copyrightReuters
image captionOne protester had written on her belly: "Where is the money?"

According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 118,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Guatemala and more than 4,000 people have died in the Central American nation of 17 million inhabitants.

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The budget, which Congress passed on Wednesday, was the largest in Guatemala's history and amounted to $13bn (£9.7bn)

It triggered large protests with demonstrators saying they were angered that the bulk of the funds would benefit big business.

The government said that the budget had been "misreported" and that it contained funds to build hospitals.

But protesters on the streets at the weekend, many of whom were young, carried banners reading: "They messed with the wrong generation".

While much of the protest on Saturday was peaceful, a group of hooded demonstrators set fire to part of the Congress building in the capital, Guatemala City.

media captionFlames rose from the building's large windows

Firefighters put the blaze out but the administration of President Giammattei called it an "act of terrorism".

Pressure has been growing for President Giammattei to resign. He was elected last year and had campaigned on a promise to increase prosperity by attracting foreign investment.

He has come under widespread criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Critics say that hospitals have struggled to cope with the increased number of patients and there has been little financial help for those who could not work due to lockdowns.

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