On June 30 the Puerto Rican legislature approved a new Penal Code that includes sharp restrictions on a broad range of civil liberties and rights. Supporters of civil liberties refer to it as essentially a ‘wish list’ of many regressive laws the right wing has dreamed of passing. It now awaits either the approval or veto of Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño, who is from the New Progressive Party (PNP) of Puerto Rico, and is also a member of the U.S.’s Republican Party.
The new changes to the penal code include restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression that would criminalize many forms of protest. The law would criminalize, with a mandatory three-year jail sentence, any protest that might “perturb, interrupt or impede” politicians, or “any disorder” around them. The law would also prohibit protests that “obstruct the providing of services or access” at schools, universities and health institutions. This is clearly targeted at criminalizing anything like the recent university student strikes or actions to defend public services that are threatened by budget cuts and austerity. Violations of this law would mean six months in jail and/or a $5000 fine.
The bill includes severe restrictions and criminalization of abortion (currently legal under Puerto Rican and U.S. law). The new penal code would also create lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for a range of crimes. There is a separate (but politically related) constitutional referendum that will be voted on, which would remove the right to bail for people accused of some crimes.
Many of these measures have been proposed before and failed, and the constitutionality of some of them is questionable. There is a concern expressed by opponents of the bill that this is just the first step and the government would then attempt to restrict other rights such as the right to strike. Strikes in Puerto Rico in recent years have been militant and effective at fighting austerity. More austerity is expected in the coming period.
Puerto Rico’s status as a colony (‘commonwealth’) of the U.S. means that Puerto Rico is subject to the U.S.’s federal laws and courts in addition to Puerto Rico’s own laws. Some of the provisions in this new bill could be found unconstitutional under U.S. and Puerto Rican law, but the legislature seems intent on pushing the limits to try to criminalize a broad range of actions. These changes to the Puerto Rican penal code come in a context of sharpening repression in the United States as well, and many of the parts of this law appear to be models for deepening repressive laws in the U.S.