MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Former Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños Geyer, a businessman who led the country from 2002 to 2007, saw his predecessor and old running mate locked up for corruption and pushed for the country’s economic development, has died. He was 93.
His family said in a statement that Bolaños died late Monday. The cause was not disclosed.
Bolaños was born May 13, 1928, in Masaya, was educated in Catholic schools and earned an engineering degree at Saint Louis University in the U.S.
In the 1950s, he led a cotton consortium that became one of Nicaragua’s largest. He headed a number of private companies over the next two decades and then eventually held leadership roles in Nicaragua’s most important business associations during the 1980s.
The victory of the Sandinista rebels and the fall of dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, led to the new revolutionary government confiscating more than 10 of his businesses. Current President Daniel Ortega led that government from 1985 to 1990.
As president of the Superior Council of Private Business, he battled the Sandinista Front government over human rights and individual freedoms, “for which he was subject of a pair of arrests and confiscation of all of his family’s assets in 1985,” according to a biography published by the Enrique Bolaños library.
In 1995, Bolaños joined Arnoldo Alemán on the winning conservative Liberal Party ticket and served as vice president. In 1998, he denounced a secret agreement between Alemán and Ortega that reformed the electoral law to allow a candidate to win the presidency with a minimum of 35% of the vote, down from 45%. That change would allow Ortega to retake the presidency in 2006 with just 38% of the vote.
As president, Bolaños promoted job creation in free-trade zones, as well as investment in tourism and agriculture. His adversaries accused him of favoring business sectors with government projects and not giving enough attention to Nicaragua’s poor. He pushed for the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which Nicaragua’s congress ratified in 2005.
His government continued to face opposition from Sandinista Front lawmakers in congress, as well as frequent strikes and highway blockades by students and unions tied to the Sandinistas.
After massive street protests sparked by proposed changes to Nicaragua’s social security system in 2018, Bolaños criticized Ortega’s repression of dissent and called for dialogue.
“To build a dreamed-of Nicaragua, we have to overcome the great vices that have characterized our society: corruption, perversion in the use of power, caudillismo and populism,” Bolaños said in a 2019 interview with a local online publication. If not, he warned, “the future will be more of the same.”
Ortega's government has arrested 13 potential candidates in the Nov. 7 elections and other political leaders this month. On Tuesday, Berta Valle, the wife of one of the imprisoned candidates, Félix Maradiaga, mourned the death of Bolaños.
“Maybe he wasn't a perfect president, but he had fought for democracy,” Valle said. “Today for Nicaragua, it's a big loss.”
Valle called the charges against her husband “absurd” and said “we are very worried about his welfare” because relatives have not been allowed to visit the arrested opposition leaders.
While some are being held at the capital’s infamous El Chipote prison, where there have been reports of mistreatment, lawyer Jared Genser said “it is unclear” where Maradiaga and fellow candidate Juan Sebastián Chamorro are being held.
Genser, who represents the men's families, said both were subject to secret hearings without their lawyers present.