Enrique Bolaños, former president of Nicaragua, dies at 93
By Oscar López
Enrique Bolaños, the former Nicaraguan president who saw his predecessor convicted of corruption and who drove economic development during a brief period of democratic transition, died June 14 at his home in Masaya, Nicaragua. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his son, Enrique Bolaños Abaunza, who said his father had been treated for emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis.
Once a leading figure of the anti-Sandinista opposition and later, as president from 2002 to 2007, hailed as a staunch defender of democratic norms, Bolaños was widely seen as an elder statesman so committed to driving out corruption that he even took down his former running mate.
His death comes at a critical time for Nicaragua. His successor as president, Daniel Ortega, has in recent weeks presided over a national crackdown, arresting more than a dozen politicians and civic leaders before elections to be held in November.
“He’s going to be remembered for his honesty, his moral integrity and his commitment to institutions,” said Mateo Jarquín, an assistant professor of history at Chapman University in California. Given the current crackdown, Jarquín added, “His term will be remembered with a lot of nostalgia.”
Born in Masaya, in 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 cultivated coffee and livestock; his mother, Amanda Geyer Abaunza, was a homemaker.
Bolaños attended Monseñor Lezcano and Cardenal Juan Cagliero schools in Masaya, as well as Colegio Centro América, a storied private Roman Catholic school in Granada. He graduated with a degree in engineering from Saint Louis University in Missouri and later studied at the INCAE Business School in Nicaragua.
In 1949, he married Lila Abaunza, whom he had met when they were teenagers. Abaunza died in 2008, and according to his son, Bolaños was still wearing a wedding ring at his death.
“He used to say he had married for life,” his son 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 affected Bolaños deeply.
Over the next few decades, 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 numerous important trade associations, including the country’s main business lobby, the Superior Council of Private Business. That role gave him an important platform, and he soon became one of the most vocal critics of the leftist Sandinistas, who had seized power in 1979.
“The most powerful voice from the business world in Nicaragua through times of tremendous repression was the voice of Don Enrique Bolaños,” said Joel Gutiérrez, who had known the Bolaños family since the 1970s and worked as Bolaños’ press secretary during his presidency.
But being so outspoken came at a cost. Bolaños was jailed twice by the Sandinistas, and in 1985 the state seized much of his business assets and properties.
“He had to start over from scratch,” 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 went on to defeat Ortega’s Sandinistas in elections that year. As vice president, he was charged with overseeing the country’s response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch.
Bolaños ran for president in 2001 and won; Ortega was again defeated. During his presidency, Bolaños launched a far-reaching anti-corruption investigation, which resulted in the arrest of his predecessor, Alemán, although he was later absolved under Ortega’s government.
As president, Bolaños focused on liberalizing the country’s economy, popularizing the phrase “Let’s roll up our sleeves.” He managed to get much of Nicaragua’s debt forgiven and promoted a free-trade agreement between Central America and the United States.
“He would work from very early in the morning at home, from 5 in the morning,” said Avil Ramírez, who was Bolaños’ private secretary and later became defense minister. He worked “until late at night,” Ramírez said, “despite the fact that he became president at 73.”
His later 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 enormously,” his son said. “He made a huge effort to get into a routine and be able to overcome that pain he had every day.”
In addition to his son, Bolaños is survived by a daughter, Lucía, as well as 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
Bolaños was also pained having to watch Ortega cement his rule, often in the most brutal ways. In 2018, more than 320 people were killed during 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 others detained and journalists questioned or intimidated, in what would appear to be further attempts to demolish the delicate democracy that Bolaños had sought to preserve.
“Nicaragua is immersed in a profound state of political, social and moral crisis,” Bolaños told a local news outlet in 2019, adding, “We can’t fool ourselves — to create a Nicaragua we dream of, we have to defeat the great vices that have historically characterized our society.”
Otherwise, he said, “the future will be more of the same.”