An estimated 70,000 protesters filled a central plaza in Guatemala City on Thursday as part of a national strike that saw some businesses close and marchers block highways demanding President Otto Perez Molina resign for alleged bribery.
With at least five cabinet ministers having quit since Saturday, lawmakers formed a five-member committee of randomly selected legislators on Thursday to consider allegations that the president led a tax fraud scheme. Ruling party lawmaker Mario Linares will lead the committee, which could present its findings to the 158-member legislature Sept. 1. Congress will then vote on whether or not to revoke the president’s immunity from prosecution. Doing so requires 105 votes.
Hundreds of schools and local businesses announced their support, using the social media symbol #YoEstoyPorGuate, suspending classes and closing their doors. Marchers filled Constitution Plaza in front of the National Palace in the largest demonstration since protests erupted in April. Local branches of McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza closed to take part in the strike.
“This is a turbulent time in Guatemala,” said Sofia Rada, a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “It really says a lot about the weakness of Guatemala’s institutions. As an investor, I would be weary.”
Perez Molina, whose term ends in January, has rejected the allegations and vowed to stay in office. He met with his security minister and watched live images from street cameras showing anti-government marchers.
The yield on Guatemala’s dollar bonds due in 2022 jumped to 5.10 percent yesterday, their highest since February 2014. The $59 billion economy, Central America’s biggest, is still expected to expand 3.6 percent to 4.2 percent this year, interim central bank President Sergio Recinos told reporters Wednesday.
“The economy has been isolated from the political crisis,” Recinos said. “Guatemalan bonds have been experiencing small fluctuations within the normal margins. We have always honored our debts.”
Recinos is filling in for central bank President Julio Suarez, who has been jailed since May for his alleged involvement in a separate scandal involving contracts at the Social Security Institute. Suarez has said he is innocent.
Jailed Vice President
Courts sent former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned in May, to jail for her role in the scam, and the country’s finance, economy, infrastructure, education and health ministers have all quit since Saturday alongside other top aides.
The state’s attorney’s office, which represents the state in legal proceedings, joined the business chamber and Metropolitan Archbishop in calling for Perez Molina to step down.
The turmoil takes place barely a week before Guatemala hosts first-round presidential elections on Sept. 6. If none of the 14 candidates secures a majority, a runoff will take place in October.