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Ricardo Martinelli's Political Asylum: An "Escape Route" Gone Wrong

The former president of Panama evades jail by taking refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy, but strains relations between the two countries.

Redacción Confidencial

18 de febrero 2024


 In one of his latest Instagram posts, Ricardo Martinelli, former president of Panama, is shown exercising on a treadmill and giving advice on how to enjoy the Panamanian Carnival festivities in a healthy way. In the image, there are also two air conditioners, a large television, and a sofa; part of the many belongings brought by the former head of state to the Nicaraguan embassy in the Panamanian capital, where he has been granted asylum since February 7, 2024.

Martinelli declared himself a “politically persecuted person,” although he has not presented any evidence of it. The lack of proof did not prevent the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega from granting him political asylum. The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry stated he is “persecuted for political reasons” and that “his life, physical integrity, and security are at imminent risk.”

The Ortega regime’s asylum to Ricardo Martinelli, 71, came five days after the Supreme Court of Panama rejected an appeal and upheld a sentence of ten years and six months in prison and the payment of a fine of 19.2 million dollars for money laundering.

“We were all expecting an escape route, because we were sure that former President Martinelli would once again do something to evade justice. I don’t think he is willing to go to jail as he should,” said Lina Vega Abad, journalist, and president of Transparency International in Panama.

In an interview with the program Esta Noche, Vega commented that Panamanians are also not “surprised” by the destination chosen by Ricardo Martinelli. “There aren’t many places that would accept complicity in supporting a convicted person, a criminal. Nicaragua does not have the conditions of a true rule of law,” she stressed.

“Fortunately,” she added, “the move has not gone well.”

An employee brings a tray of food for former President Ricardo Martinelli, asylum seeker at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama. Photo: EFE/ Gabriel Rodriguez

Asylum does not apply to common crimes

The Ortega dictatorship also requested the Panamanian government to “provide the assurances for the prompt departure and humanitarian transfer of Martinelli” to Nicaragua. However, the government of Laurentino Cortizo denied the exit permit.

The regime then accused Panama of “violating the Conventions on Asylum” and argued that, according to Article 2 of the 1933 Convention on Political Asylum, it is the responsibility of the asylum-granting state to qualify the political nature of the case.

Panamanian jurist Rodrigo Noriega, an analyst of public policies and justice issues, said the Cortizo government “is right” because all international conventions conclude that “asylum cannot be granted for common crimes, although the qualification belongs to the asylum-granting country, in this case Nicaragua.”

“The universal principle that asylum cannot be granted for common crimes underlies Panama’s reaction. That is, they are saying: ‘Nicaragua, you are making a mistake and, therefore, we are not issuing a safe passage for this man to leave Panama’,” Noriega said on the program Esta Noche.

The sentence against Ricardo Martinelli was issued in July 2023 in the so-called “New Business” case, which involves the purchase with public funds of the media group Editora Panamá América S. A. (Epasa), and dates back to 2017. Along the way, more than a dozen appeals and protections filed by Martinelli’s defense were rejected, and according to some jurists, they were aimed at nothing more than delaying the process so as not to affect his new presidential candidacy, which was invalidated by the confirmation of the sentence.

“Can a dictatorship grant asylum to corrupt individuals?”

Panamanian lawyer Carlos Ernesto Gonzalez pointed out that asylum for Ricardo Martinelli goes beyond legal analysis and enters the realm of morality. “Can a State, governed by a corrupt dictatorship, have the international authority to determine the quality of a crime?” he questioned.

“Can (the same dictatorship) constantly grant asylum to corrupt individuals from other countries?” continued the Panamanian jurist, referring to the fact that the Ortega regime has turned Nicaragua into a hiding place for former presidents, diplomats, former guerrillas, and former high-ranking officials with pending legal issues in their countries.

One of the most well-known cases is that of former President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), to whom Ortega granted political asylum in 2016, while he was wanted by the Salvadoran justice system for alleged embezzlement of more than $351 million dollars and the payment of bribes. Faced with the threat of extradition by the current Salvadoran president, Nayib Bukele, Ortega naturalized Funes, his wife, and two of his children, according to a resolution of the Ministry of Governance dated July 30, 2019.

Another fugitive former president hiding in Nicaragua is Salvador Sanchez Ceren, from El Salvador (2014-2019). The justice system is seeking the former president for the crimes of illicit enrichment and money laundering. The former guerrilla was naturalized as a Nicaraguan on July 30, 2021.

Former Presidents Salvador Sanchez Ceren (left) and Mauricio Funes (right), fugitives from justice, and now naturalized Nicaraguans. Photo: El Faro

There is no political affinity between Ortega and Martinelli

Gonzalez emphasized that in the cases of Funes and Sanchez Ceren, there is a political-ideological affinity between Ortega’s FSLN and the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Meanwhile, Martinelli’s party has attacked Ortega on several occasions.

“Given the crisis in Nicaragua, our Foreign Ministry should recall our ambassador to that Government (Nicaragua). It is a contradiction to have normal relations in a country with an openly dictatorial government,” wrote Jose Raul Mulino, the current presidential candidate for Martinelli’s party, in June 2021.

Meanwhile, in March 2014, dictator Ortega accused Ricardo Martinelli —then President of Panama— of being a “spokesman for the interests of the US empire,” in relation to debates in the Organization of American States (OAS) about protests in Venezuela against the government of Nicolas Maduro, which had left dozens dead and hundreds injured.

“There was a battle at the OAS, and there were the United States and the Panamanian government, presenting themselves to be spokesmen for the interests of the empire,” said Ortega.

Ricardo Martinelli governed Panama (2009-2014) with the Cambio Democrático party, which identifies itself as “conservative, neoliberal, and center-right.” The former president lost control of that political organization and founded, in 2021, the Realizando Metas party, which defines itself with the same right-wing ideologies as Cambio Democrático.

“The truth is that ideologically Ortega and Martinelli are poles apart. Venezuela and Cuba (Ortega’s allies) criticized Martinelli a lot for some of his decisions,” recalled Carlos Murillo Zamora, an international affairs analyst and professor at the University of Costa Rica.

Ricardo Martinelli versus Alberto Pizango

A Nicaraguan expert in international relations, who requested anonymity, indicated that asylum for Martinelli “loses its rationale” when compared to the case of Peruvian indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, who sought refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima in June 2009.

Pizango, then president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, had a warrant for his arrest on charges of rebellion and sedition following violent protests in three Amazonian regions that left at least 32 dead, including police officers and civilians.

“We analyzed the situation with President Ortega and realized that it was a political matter,” Nicaraguan ambassador to Lima the late Tomás Borge told BBC Mundo. “We had no alternative,” added the former guerrilla commander.

Peruvian indigenous leader, Alberto Pizango, in a photo from February 2011. Photo: EFE/Archive

The indigenous leader obtained safe conduct to travel to Nicaragua, where he remained in asylum for eleven months. Pizango was arrested on May 27, 2010, at Lima’s international airport when he voluntarily returned to his country because he missed his land and was convinced of his innocence. He was released the day after his arrest.

The expert commented that, in addition to Pizango and Martinelli, no other asylum cases in Nicaraguan embassies are known. “When you compare both situations, you can deduce that, in the case of the Panamanian politician, there are other interests, possibly money, a lot of money.”

What does Nicaragua gain by granting asylum to Ricardo Martinelli?

Ricardo Martinelli, of Italian and Spanish descent, is considered in Panama a man with an “insatiable appetite” for business. Most of his fortune comes from a chain of supermarkets, known as “Super 99,” although he also has investments in real estate, media, banking, and energy sectors.

In September 2015, Bloomberg estimated his fortune at 1.1 billion dollars, according to BBC Mundo.

Lawyer Carlos Ernesto Gonzalez sees a “corruption issue” in granting asylum to the former president. “There isn’t even an ideological affinity, where one can say: ‘he’s helping him because they’re part of the same mafia.’ Here, they are helping him, obviously, for other reasons.”

The United States government sanctioned Martinelli in 2023, prohibiting him and his family from entering US territory, accusing him of being involved in “large-scale corruption.”

Lina Vega Abad, president of Transparency International in Panama, argued that behind the Ortega regime’s measure “there is money.” “It is bought asylum, literally. I have no evidence, but I also have no doubts about it.”

Former Panamanian Attorney General Ana Matilde Gomez told the EFE news agency that “as criminals, they understand each other. The other one (Ortega) is a violator of human rights and other things that we do not know, but this one (Martinelli), we know is a money launderer, declared and recognized as such by the Supreme Court.”

Panama's former president, Ricardo Martinelli, looks out from a window of the Nicaraguan embassy in that country. Photo: Taken from La Prensa de Panamá/Foco

Change in Panama’s stance with Nicaragua

Jurists and experts in international relations foresee that relations between Panama and Nicaragua will become “rough,” but without reaching suspension or diplomatic rupture.

The Panamanian Foreign Ministry revealed that on Friday, February 9, they summoned the Nicaraguan ambassador to Panama, journalist Consuelo Sandoval Meza, to whom they informed about the refusal of the safe passage for Martinelli and reminded her of the “obligation to ensure that the headquarters of the Diplomatic Mission under her charge fulfills the functions it is called to perform.”

They warned her that “any action, statement, or communication” made by Ricardo Martinelli from the embassy and “that has an impact on Panama’s domestic policy, will be considered interference” and, therefore, “will generate diplomatic consequences.”

The warning, for the time being, has had an effect. Since this Friday, the former president has used his social networks to show his pet Bruno, praise the smell of Nicaraguan coffee, give advice for Carnival parties, and express his love for his youngest grandson. He has not spoken about politics or given virtual interviews again.

Rodrigo Noriega pointed out that the Panamanian government has been “very cold” and “respectful” when denouncing human rights violations in Nicaragua, so granting asylum to Martinelli “is like paying Panama back with the same coin.”

Panama, along with Costa Rica, were the only Central American countries that consistently voted in favor of all resolutions against the Ortega regime approved in the OAS, from 2018 to 2023, the year the regime unilaterally withdrew from the regional body. Despite their vote, Panamanian representatives never spoke out against the abuses of the Ortega regime.

Vega Abad appreciated that asylum for Martinelli will allow a shift in Panamanian foreign policy towards Nicaragua. “Hopefully, this will serve for us to support the Nicaraguan people more, who are fighting for their freedom.”

Carlos Murillo Zamora believes bilateral relations “will not be broken,” as he thinks the Nicaraguan dictator “will not go that far for a personal interest.”

“One must not lose sight of —he continued— that many Nicaraguans are migrating to Panama, for labor reasons, and Ortega will not want to lose that source of income from family remittances.”

Nicaragua received a record US $4.66 billion in family remittances in 2023 —representing 29.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP)—, of which $54.5 million (1.2%) came from Panama, according to data from the Nicaraguan Central Bank.

Political asylum, “a Latin American invention”

Gonzalez mentioned that Panama “cannot throw many stones at the Nicaraguan roof” regarding the granting of asylum since, in the past, Panama has served as a refuge for former presidents persecuted by the justice of their countries.

Panama has granted asylum to major figures such as former Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón in 1956, former presidents of Guatemala Jorge Serrano Elías (1990-1993) and Ecuador Abdala Bucaram (1996-1997), as well as former Haitian coup leader Raoul Cedras (1991-1994).

Numerous Latin American politicians, regardless of ideological distinction, have found asylum as a “pass” to evade justice or, in the best cases, to safeguard their lives, a situation that has also caused friction between the involved governments.

Among the latest cases is that of former Vice President of Ecuador Jorge Glas (2013-2018), who in December 2023 sought asylum in Mexico, after entering the embassy of that country in Quito, where he remains as a “guest” awaiting a response from the Government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

In January 2024, an Ecuadorian court ordered pre-trial detention against Glas -who was vice president during the government of Rafael Correa (2007-2017)- accused of embezzlement.

In December 2022, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, attempted a coup d’état by ordering the closure of Congress. However, he was detained while heading to the Mexican Embassy with his wife and underage children. His relatives managed to reach the diplomatic representation and later received asylum from the Mexican government.

From left to right: Former presidents Pedro Castillo of Peru, Ricardo Martinelli of Panama, and Jorge Glas, former VP of Ecuador. Photo: EFE/Archive

In February 2023, after several clashes between the two countries, the Government of Peruvian President Dina Boluarte announced the permanent withdrawal of its ambassador to Mexico and downgraded the bilateral relationship to chargés d’affaires.

In 2019, following the crisis triggered by the resignation of then-Bolivian President Evo Morales, several of his ministers and official legislators sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy in La Paz. Meanwhile, the Mexican government sent an Air Force plane to the Andean country to “rescue” Morales and take him to Mexican territory, where he was granted asylum for a month before moving to Argentina.

Gonzalez emphasized that political asylum conventions or treaties are “a Latin American invention” of the last century, which are not “applicable” in this 21st century.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


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Redacción Confidencial

Redacción Confidencial

Confidencial es un diario digital nicaragüense, de formato multimedia, fundado por Carlos F. Chamorro en junio de 1996. Inició como un semanario impreso y hoy es un medio de referencia regional con información, análisis, entrevistas, perfiles, reportajes e investigaciones sobre Nicaragua, informando desde el exilio por la persecución política de la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo.