As Panama enters its tumultuous Carnival season, this weekend’s festivities come amid a strange political drama unfolding in the capital.
A former president, who is also a leading candidate in this year’s presidential election in May, has holed up in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City, accompanied by his furniture, including a sofa and desk, as well as his dog, Bruno.
Ricardo Martinelli, a 71-year-old conservative businessman who led Panama from 2009 to 2014, was granted asylum in Nicaragua this week after Panama’s Supreme Court rejected his appeal against a money-laundering conviction that carried a 10-year prison sentence.
Mr. Martinelli, who has faced other criminal investigations, maintains not only that the case is politically motivated, but that Panama’s president and vice president want to kill him.
Instead of going to prison, he said he plans to continue his presidential campaign from the embassy, even though Panama’s Constitution bars anyone sentenced to five years or more for an intentional crime from running the country.
“You have to be very cowardly to rule out a presidential candidate who is leading the polls,” he said in a statement posted Wednesday on X, the social media platform. He added: “This is an attack on democracy.”
Some polls have shown that Mr. Martinelli is the first. The electoral tribunal has strongly hinted that he will be barred from the ballot in the next election.
Panama’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday night that it would not grant Nicaragua’s request to allow Mr. Martinelli safe passage to its country, citing an article in an international agreement on political asylum, ratified by Nicaragua and Panama, stating that countries cannot grant asylum to people who have been “duly prosecuted” for non-political crimes.
Nicaragua’s foreign ministry later responded to Panama’s refusal, saying political asylum should be respected as a humanitarian right.
Mr. Martinelli’s spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, said Panama’s decision to grant safe passage was not a surprise “because this is not a democracy. This is a savage rule of law.”
Fernando Gómez-Arbeláez, a lawyer in Panama specializing in international law, said allowing Mr. Martinelli to leave the country would be a national shame.
“The Panamanian government is aware that letting Martinelli leave the country in this way would be a travesty of gigantic proportions on the Panamanian justice system,” Mr. Gómez-Arbeláez said.
It was unclear as of Friday night whether authorities in Panama had issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Martinelli.
Mr. Martinelli was convicted last July in a case in which prosecutors said funds were obtained from government contractors to buy a publishing house in 2010. In addition to the prison term, he was fined $19 million.
The former president has denied wrongdoing.
Several days after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, Mr. Martinelli filed a criminal complaint with Panama’s National Assembly, accusing Panama’s president and vice president of attempted murder. The complaint alleged that a person close to the president’s office had warned of a plot to assassinate Mr. Martinelli to prevent him from becoming president.
The current president, Laurentino Cortizo, has denied the claim.
As the country’s headlines focused on Martinelli’s condition, the streets of Panama City on Friday were packed with people rushing to do their shopping ahead of the start of Carnival, a holiday celebrated four days before Ash Wednesday. which includes parades and dancing in the streets at night.
Some said they supported Mr. Martinelli, pointing to how he had led the country through a period of strong economic growth, accompanied by a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal.
At a bus terminal, Tais Saldaña, a 23-year-old speech therapy student, said she planned to vote for Mr. Martinelli — and that if not for the celebrations, people would be protesting to support him.
“Politics is dirty,” Ms. Saldaña said. “The fact that he has been excluded takes away the opportunity for Panama to choose freely, to support a candidate who because of his experience or what he has done in previous years is a favorite of Panamanians.”
At the entrance to the Panama Canal, Joel Alvarado, a 28-year-old driver, said he did not believe Mr. Martinelli was the victim of political persecution. “He’s done good things, that’s true, but that doesn’t justify us being robbed. That we work every day and our taxes are stolen is not fair,” he said.
Although Nicaragua is run by a left-wing government, the conservative Mr. Martinelli said in an interview with CNN a few days ago that he has “great love and respect for Nicaragua.”
Nicaragua has become increasingly authoritarian, and its officials face sanctions from the United States for stripping political dissidents of their citizenship. The country also freezes the property of its critics.
But Nicaragua has a history of providing safe haven to politicians under criminal investigation, said Manuel Orozco, director of the migration, remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
In the last decade, for example, Nicaragua granted asylum to two former presidents of El Salvador.
Mr Martinelli has faced previous criminal investigations. In 2021, he was acquitted on charges of wiretapping opponents and journalists. He is also embroiled in a pending court case related to a multinational bribery scandal involving the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
Asked for comment on the Panama situation, the State Department said it had previously barred Mr. Martinelli from the United States for accepting bribes in exchange for government contracts while he was president.
“The United States and Panama promote shared democratic values of accountability, rule of law, and transparency,” it said in a statement.
Mary Triny Zea contributed reporting from Panama City.