Emilio Álvarez Montalván, one of Nicaragua’s most respected intellectuals and defenders of democracy, died on July 2 at the age of 94.
“Don Emilio” was an academic, a doctor, a foreign minister, and a social commentator who remained lucid and active to his final days. As recently as two months ago he penned the introduction to a forthcoming book published by the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences on Nicaragua’s plans to build an interoceanic canal.
In that essay, Alvarez says that the same problems that thwarted Nicaragua’s canal plans 100 years ago remain today: geopolitical issues, territorial studies, technical difficulties and financing.
Alvarez was a strong voice for institutional democracy in Nicaragua. Still, his only foray into government came at the age of 77, when he agreed to serve briefly as foreign minister for Arnoldo Alemán. In an interview with New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, Alvarez explained his decision to enter politics as such: “I had passed by the bordello so many times, finally I decided that I’d like to see what goes on inside.”
Kinzer told me that story a month ago, while we were having lunch in Boston and reminiscing about Nicaragua. Kinzer was a huge fan of Alvarez, whom he referred to as the “wisest man in Nicaragua.” Kinzer said he had already written Alvarez’s obituary, a morbid but common practice in journalism. Kinzer wanted to make sure “don Emilio” got his due recognition when he passed. Neither one of us expected that obituary would go to print a month later.
Alvarez was generous and good-natured man. He was a go-to source whom I interviewed innumerable times over the past decade. He always answered my calls and was kind enough to take time from his day to offer insightful comments and pity quotes on just about any topic that involved Nicaragua — and some that didn’t.
The last time I talked to him by phone, he got on my case for not emailing him a link to a previous article for which I had interviewed him. “This time send me the link, man! Don’t be so lazy!” he said.
Sorry about that, don Emilio.
Alvarez’s death is the latest in an unsettling trend of great Nicaraguan patriots who pass away during the first 48 hours of July. When I learned of his passing this week, I had just finished an article commemorating the fifth anniversary of the death of Nicaraguan boxing champ Alexis Argüello, who was found shot in the heart on July 1, 2009. (See “What I remember about Alexis Argüello”)
This week also marks the ninth anniversary of the death of former Managua Mayor and Sandinista dissident Herty Lewites, whose untimely death on July 2, 2006 cut short his promising presidential candidacy. Lewites, an enormously charismatic and savvy politician, was at one point the frontrunner in the 2006 presidential contest. His death changed the political landscape of the country, leading to Daniel Ortega’s reelection and perpetual presidency.
Alvarez, Argüello and Lewites have all left an indelible mark on Nicaragua’s history. The first week of July will forever be a time to reflect on their lives, the love their shared for Nicaragua, and the unfinished causes they left for others to continue.