Enrique Bolaños, former president of Nicaragua, dies at 93

Enrique Bolaños, the former Nicaraguan president who saw his predecessor convicted of corruption and led to economic development during a brief period of democratic transition, died on June 14 at his home in Masaya, Nicaragua. He was 93 years old.

His death was confirmed by his son Enrique Bolaños Abaunza, who said his father was treated for emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis.

Once a leading figure in the anti-Sandinista opposition and later, as president from 2002 to 2007, hailed as a staunch defender of democratic standards, Mr. Bolaños was widely regarded as a statesman so determined to eliminate the corruption that he even brought down his former running mate.

His death comes at a critical time for Nicaragua. His successor to the presidency, Daniel Ortega, has chaired a nationwide crackdown in recent weeks, arresting more than a dozen politicians and civic leaders ahead of elections to be held in November.

“He will be remembered for his honesty, moral integrity and commitment to institutions,” said Mateo Jarquin, assistant professor of history at Chapman University in California. In view of the current repression, Mr. Jarquín added: “His tenure will be remembered with great nostalgia. “

Born in Masaya, western Nicaragua, on May 13, 1928, Enrique Bolaños Geyer was the third of four sons. His father, Nicolás Bolaños Cortés, was a businessman who ran a pharmacy and grew coffee and cattle; her mother, Amanda Geyer Abaunza, was a housewife.

Mr. Bolaños attended Monseñor Lezcano and Cardenal Juan Cagliero schools in Masaya, as well as Colegio Centro América, a former private Roman Catholic school in Granada. He obtained an engineering degree from Saint Louis University in Missouri and then studied at INCAE Business School in Nicaragua.

In 1949, he married Lila Abaunza, whom he had met when they were teenagers. Ms Abaunza died in 2008, and according to young Mr Bolaños, his father was still wearing a wedding ring when he died.

“He used to say he was married for life,” Mr. Bolaños Jr. said. “And that meant eternal life, not just earthly life. “

The couple had five children. The youngest, Alberto, died in a car accident in 1976 when he was 16, a loss that deeply affected Mr. Bolaños.

Over the following decades, Mr. Bolaños worked in several industries, including running a milk factory and a shoe factory. He found his greatest financial success in the cotton industry, creating one of the largest cotton consortia in the country.

In the 1980s, he headed many important trade associations, including the country’s main business lobby, the Superior Council of Private Enterprises. This role gave him an important platform and he quickly became one of the most vocal critics of the left-wing Sandinistas, who had seized power in 1979.

“The most powerful voice in the business world in Nicaragua during times of intense repression was the voice of Don Enrique Bolaños,” said Joel Gutiérrez, who had known the Bolaños family since the 1970s and worked as Mr. Bolaños during his presidency.

But being so frank has come at a cost. Mr. Bolaños was imprisoned twice by the Sandinistas, and in 1985 the state seized much of his business and property.

“He had to start over,” his son said. “He reinvented himself several times.

In 1996 he was chosen as Arnoldo Alemán’s running mate by the Liberal Alliance, which despite its name is a conservative coalition, and which defeated Mr. Ortega’s Sandinistas in that year’s elections. As vice president, he was responsible for overseeing the country’s response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch.

Mr. Bolaños ran for president in 2001 and won; Mr. Ortega was again defeated. During his presidency, Mr. Bolaños launched a broad anti-corruption investigation, which resulted in the arrest of his predecessor, Mr. Alemán, although he was later acquitted under the government of Mr. Ortega.

As President, Bolaños focused on liberalizing the country’s economy, popularizing the phrase “roll up our sleeves”. He succeeded in securing a large chunk of Nicaraguan debt and promoted a free trade agreement between Central America and the United States.

“He worked very early in the morning at home, starting at 5 a.m.,” said Avil Ramírez, who was Mr. Bolaños’ private secretary and later became defense minister. He worked “late into the night,” Ramírez said, “despite having become president at 73”.

Yet for all his hard work, Mr Bolaños found much of his agenda thwarted by fierce opposition in Congress, which remained loyal to both his predecessor, Mr Alemán, and his longtime rival, Mr. Ortega. Critics also claimed he had done little to lift many Nicaraguans out of poverty.

“It was a time of economic growth,” said Mr. Jarquín, professor of history, of democratic governments in Nicaragua. “But also growing inequalities, which have become fertile ground for the dictatorship of Ortega.”

Mr Ortega took over the presidency in 2006, winning with just 38 percent of the vote thanks to legal changes imposed by Mr Alemán in 1998 in a questionable pact with Mr Ortega that allowed presidential candidates to be declared the winners with a minimum 35 percent support.

Mr. Bolaños then largely retired from public life, devoting much of his time to creating a library, which bears his name, which holds scanned copies of important documents from his presidency and beyond. It has become one of the most important archives of Nicaraguan history and culture.

His final years were marked by tragedy: between 2005 and 2008, he lost two more sons, one to a stroke and the other to leukemia, and his wife died of cancer.

“It affected him tremendously,” his son said. “He put in a huge effort to get into a routine and be able to get over this pain that he had every day.”

Besides his son Enrique, Mr. Bolaños is survived by a daughter, Lucía, as well as 13 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.

Mr. Bolaños was also saddened to see Mr. Ortega cement his reign, often in the most brutal way. In 2018, more than 320 people were killed in protests against him, the worst political violence in Latin America in 30 years.

In recent weeks, the crackdown has intensified, with politicians, business executives and other detainees and journalists questioned or intimidated, in what appear to be further attempts to demolish the delicate democracy Mr. Bolaños had held. sought to preserve.

“Nicaragua is plunged into a deep state of political, social and moral crisis,” said Mr. Bolaños told local media in 2019, adding: “We cannot kid ourselves – to create the Nicaragua we dream of, we must overcome the great vices that have historically characterized our society. Otherwise, he added, “the future will be more the same.”

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