The Legislative Assembly is considering a bill to replace prison time with monetary fines for blocking roads during street protests.
Lawmakers revived the bill, originally presented in 2009, the day before private chauffeurs or “porteadores” protested a new regulation by blocking public roads across the country, snarling traffic.
Members of the Legislative Committee on Legal Affairs reintroduced and approved the bill last Tuesday. Bill 17,341, the “Law to decriminalize social protests,” would eliminate prison sentences of up to 30 days for demonstrators who stage blockades on public roads. Instead demonstrators would face fines ranging from 10 to 30 days of their salaries.
In order to adopt the amendment, the bill must be discussed and voted on by the full Assembly at two separate sessions.
The bill’s wording states that the current legislation is “repressive, excessive, disproportionate and inconsistent with a democratic republic such as Costa Rica.” Committee member and Broad Front lawmaker Edgardo Araya said the adoption of the amendment would be “a good sign, to no longer consider public demonstrations as crimes.”
President Luis Guillermo Solís, however, opposes the change.
“We already have a number of sufficiently clear laws regulating public demonstrations. There is no need to change them,” the president said Saturday at a public event. “Furthermore, several Supreme Court rulings provide for the citizens’ rights to protest as long as certain conditions are met, among them, ensuring free transit for the rest of the population.”
Last Wednesday, the day after the legislature’s legal affairs committee green-lighted the bill, hundreds of porteadores blocked public roads across the country for nearly 15 hours. They were protesting a new regulation that cuts the number of special taxi permits available for porteadores in half.
President Solís publicly chastised the protestors and ordered police to clear the roads after an ambulance was prevented from reaching the scene of a car accident in Alajuela in which two people died. A child who was in one of the cars had to be transported by helicopter to the National Children’s Hospital.
Despite the potential for criminal sentences under the current law against blocking roads, it’s unclear how often the penalty is enforced. No one was arrested during last week’s protests and officers issued no warrants for the crime of obstructing public roads.
“Traffic Police officers were clearly outnumbered,” the police press office told The Tico Times.
Besides Broad Front lawmaker Araya, the Assembly’s Legal Affairs Committee includes Marvin Atencio and Marco Vinicio Redondo from the ruling Citizen Action Party; Carlos Arguedas, Antonio Álvarez Desanti and Juan Jiménez Succar of the National Liberation Party; Oscar López of the Accessibility Without Exclusion Party; Gerardo Vargas Rojas of the Social Christian Unity Party; and José Alberto Alfaro of the Libertarian Movement.
Alfaro founded the Unión Nacional de Porteadores S.A. — a corporation that owns nearly one-third of all special taxi permits — in 2004. He’s currently listed as president of the Costa Rican Chamber of Private Chauffeurs. Germán Lobo, one of Alfaro’s legislative advisors, was the chamber’s main spokesman until he took the job advising Alfaro last year.