GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala's government called fires set by protesters at Congress "terrorist acts" while the Inter-American Human Rights Commission on Sunday condemned what it called an "excessive use of force" by police against demonstrators opposed to a new budget that slashes social spending.
Protesters broke into the Congress building and set one office afire on Saturday, and tossed rocks at police. Flames poured out of the building's neoclassical facade.
The protests were part of growing demonstrations against President Alejandro Giammattei and the legislature for approving a budget that cut educational and health spending. Lawmakers approved $65,000 to pay for meals for themselves, but cut funding for coronavirus patients and human rights agencies.
Police used tear gas and nightsticks to push demonstrators back, attacking not only about 1,000 demonstrators in front of Congress but also a much larger protest in front of the country's National Palace. Some protesters also damaged bus stations. Dozens of people were arrested but many were later ordered released.
The commission wrote in its Twitter account that it "condemns the excessive use of force by authorities against demonstrators" but also asked for an investigation into "the acts of vandalism against Congress, after which State agents indiscriminately suppressed the protest."
It said governments "must respect peaceful demonstration," but when faced with violence, they "must identify persons — protesters or third parties — who risk rights or infringe State property. "
The Organization of American States sought more of a middle ground.
"Regarding yesterday's demonstrations, we reiterate that there is a right to protest, which must be absolutely guaranteed, but there is no right to vandalism," the OAS said in a statement.
"The governance and stability of the country must be ensured. The governments of 'notables' that have not been elected by the people are essentially undemocratic and undemocratizing," the OAS wrote. "The mandates granted by the people in democratic elections must be respected, that is the meaning of democracy. Likewise, governance does not imply impunity, but quite the contrary, it must be reaffirmed by absolutely clear patterns of fighting corruption."
Giammattei's interior minister, Gendri Reyes, said "a group of people attacked with terrorist acts, throwing firebombs to destroy Congress buildings. They tossed rocks and used weapons against security forces."
The civic group Alliance for Reforms called for the resignation of Reyes, the country's top domestic security official, and the director of the National Police, saying that "they were the ones who gave the order to repress that public."
About 10,000 demonstrated protested in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City against corruption and the budget, which protesters say was negotiated and passed by legislators in secret while the Central American country was distracted by the fallout of back-to-back Hurricanes Eta and Iota as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are outraged by poverty, injustice, the way they have stolen the public's money," said psychology professor Rosa de Chavarría.
"I feel like the future is being stolen from us. We don't see any changes; this cannot continue like this," said Mauricio Ramírez, a 20-year-old university student.
The amount of damage to the building was unclear, but the flames initially appeared to have affected legislative offices, rather than the main hall of Congress.
Giammattei condemned the fires in his Twitter account Saturday.
"Anyone who is proven to have participated in the criminal acts will be punished with the full force of the law." He wrote that he defended people's right to protest, "but neither can we allow people to vandalize public or private property."
The president said he had been meeting with various groups to present changes to the budget.
Protesters were also upset by recent moves by the Supreme Court and attorney general that they saw as attempts to undermine the fight against corruption.
Vice President Guillermo Castillo has offered to resign, telling Giammattei that both men should leave their positions "for the good of the country." He also suggested vetoing the approved budget, firing government officials and attempting more outreach to various sectors around the country.
Giammattei had not responded publicly to that proposal and Castillo did not share the president's reaction. Castillo said he would not resign alone.
The spending plan was negotiated in secret and approved by Congress before dawn Wednesday.
The Roman Catholic Church leadership in Guatemala also called on Giammattei to veto the budget Friday.
"It was a devious blow to the people because Guatemala was between natural disasters, there are signs of government corruption, clientelism in the humanitarian aid," said Jordan Rodas, the country's human rights prosecutor.
He said the budget appeared to favor ministries that have historically been hot spots of corruption.
In 2015, mass streets protests against corruption led to the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti and members of his Cabinet. Both the former president and Baldetti are in jail awaiting trials in corruption cases.