By TRACY WILKINSON
MEXICO CITY -- Adolfo Calero, a former Coca-Cola executive who led the largest anti-Sandinista Contra rebel force in 1980s Nicaragua and served as one of its most articulate lobbyists in Washington, has died. He was 80.
Calero died Saturday night in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, of complications from lung disease, an aide told local media.
Calero's career mirrored the tumultuous history of Nicaragua as it emerged from a sleepy Central American backwater to the center of the Cold War struggle. He opposed one right-wing dictatorship, then opposed the leftist rebel movement that replaced it, serving as civilian commander of the U.S.-backed Contra rebels. And thanks to his close ties to the Reagan administration, he eventually got caught up in one of the darkest chapters of U.S. foreign policy, the Iran-Contra scandal.
In his final years, Calero told interviewers that he ultimately felt betrayed by his American friends, and unrepentant of his role in a bloody and largely unsuccessful mission.
He was alluding to a decision by Congress to discontinue aid to the Contras.
The Sandinista government did fall, to a democratic vote, several years later, although its leader at the time, Daniel Ortega, returned to the presidency in 2007 and was re-elected last year.
Calero was born in December 1931 in Managua to a well-known Nicaraguan writer. He became a successful businessman, managing the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Managua, and a prominent member of Nicaragua's Conservative Party.
He also formed part of the civilian movement to rid the impoverished country of the dictatorial Somoza dynasty that ruled Nicaragua through much of the first half of the 20th century. He was a friend and tennis partner of legendary newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, whose assassination by Somoza forces galvanized the movement.
And Calero was friendly with Anastasio Somoza - but also kept close tabs on the changing mood in Washington as the government of President Jimmy Carter took office, ending U.S. support for the dictator.
In 1979, Somoza was toppled and replaced by guerrillas of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Calero soon fell out of sorts with them, saying later he had hoped for a democratic transition after the Somoza overthrow.
In late 1982, Calero abandoned Nicaragua in self-imposed exile as the Sandinistas were confiscating his home and other property. By 1983 he declared his leadership of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, a Contra rebel group formed and financed by the CIA. He was considered one of the more hard-line members of the force and at times clashed with other leaders as well as his American backers.
The war would, of course, turn out to be much less surgical and cost thousands of lives. The U.S. involvement in attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas also led to a secret and illegal operation in which U.S. agents sold weapons to Iran and gave some of the money to the Contras.
Calero worked closely with fired White House aide Oliver North, one of the major Iran-Contra figures who worked to raise millions of dollars for the Contras after Congress cut off aid. At one point, Calero gave some of the money back to North, in the form of unsigned traveler's checks, after North said he needed to fund other Contra operations and buy the freedom of American hostages in Lebanon.
Calero returned to Nicaragua to live in the early 1990s, after the Sandinistas left office.
He is survived by his wife, a daughter and grandchildren.