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Explaining the crisis in Guatemala

. Nov 24, 2020
Guatemala budget protests Protests at Guatemalan National Congress. Photo: VOA/Creative Commons

“Guatemala is crying blood,” read one protest sign in Guatemala City this weekend, as thousands took to the street against President Alejandro Giammattei and his government’s proposed 2021 budget, which foresaw severe cuts to health and education amid major benefits for big business.

Demonstrators demanded the budget be vetoed and called on Mr. Giammattei — the far-right leader often referred to as “Central America’s Bolsonaro” — to resign.

</p> <p>Approved behind closed doors on November 18, Guatemala&#8217;s USD 12.9 billion budget proposal was to be the largest in the country&#8217;s history, and it was criticized for being incompatible with the financial reality of the Central American nation of 17 million inhabitants.</p> <p>While increasing incentives for construction companies and small businesses, the proposed budget included harsh cuts on healthcare, public education, and the justice system, placing further pressure on Guatemala&#8217;s strained public debt.</p> <p>Saturday&#8217;s protests turned tense, with a small group of demonstrators breaking into the Congress building in the historical center of Guatemala City, <a href="https://twitter.com/Sandra_Cuffe/status/1330247549953912832">setting parts of it on fire</a>. Police used tear gas against protesters and roughly 40 people were arrested.</p> <p>Regardless, the demonstration was successful, as the Speaker of Congress announced that the budget proposal would be shelved &#8220;for the sake of Guatemala&#8217;s stability.&#8221; Lawmakers must now work on a new plan to be approved before the end of the year.</p> <p>Mr. Giammattei, meanwhile, <a href="https://twitter.com/DrGiammattei/status/1330253806731468805">refused to resign</a>, despite Vice President Guillermo Castillo reportedly calling on the pair to step down together &#8220;for the good of the country.&#8221;</p> <h2>Economy in jeopardy&nbsp;</h2> <p>Rich in natural resources, Guatemala saw its GDP grow by 3.8 percent in 2019, according to <a href="https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=GT">World Bank</a> data. However, the good news ends there. With almost 120,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 4,000 deaths, the pandemic is set to cause Guatemala&#8217;s economy to shrink by 2 percent this year, causing concern in a country where six out of ten people live below the poverty line.</p> <p>Amid the health crisis, Guatemala has also been battered by the worst Atlantic hurricane season in history. Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Central America in quick succession, causing five deaths in Guatemala and leaving more than 200,000 currently affected by the disasters, including displaced people and those left without basic services such as electricity and internet. The destruction has also prevented coronavirus isolation measures from being properly fulfilled.&nbsp;</p> <p>Food is another urgent issue. Humanitarian NGO <a href="https://www.accioncontraelhambre.org/es/te-contamos/actualidad/la-covid-19-duplica-el-numero-de-personas-sin-alimentos-en-guatemala">Action Against Hunger</a> states that starvation currently affects 1.2 million people in Guatemala. As of May, cases of acute child malnutrition reached 15,000, exceeding the total number of cases in 2019.</p> <p>With these pressing problems, it is unsurprising that Guatemalans rose up against the government&#8217;s plans to cut the national healthcare budget.</p> <h2>What&#8217;s next for Guatemala?</h2> <p>The embattled President Giammattei says he has no plans to resign, while his vice president assures he will not step down alone. Indeed, the president&#8217;s immediate future seems secure, as the need to approve a budget amid a viral pandemic does not leave much time or disposition for lawmakers to go forward with an impeachment process, were that in their interest.</p> <p>Author Miguel Ángel Asturias — Guatemala&#8217;s first <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/10/13/the-history-of-nobel-prize-winners-across-latin-america/">Nobel Prize winner</a> — once said that &#8220;for a hungry and inactive people, the only way God can appear is through food and work.&#8221;</p> <p>Neither of these necessities is a guarantee for a vast number of Guatemalans.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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