Eduardo Cojuangco, who as an ally of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled with him into exile and then returned to his country take control of the San Miguel Corporation and build a billion-dollar fortune, died on Tuesday. He was 85.
The company, where he was chairman and chief executive, reported his death to the Philippine Stock Exchange. No cause was given; local news outlets said only that he had died of a lingering illness.
Known in the Philippines as “the Boss” and the “King of the Cronies,” Mr. Cojuangco served as a congressman, governor and ambassador before running unsuccessfully for president in 1992. But he wielded his greatest political influence behind the scenes, during and after the Marcos era.
In the process, he became one of the Philippines’ richest men, building on an early fortune acquired under disputed circumstances through a Marcos-era government fund that taxed coconut farmers.
He was a close friend of Mr. Marcos and Joseph Estrada, two of the Philippines’ most corrupt presidents; both were forced from office by military-backed popular movements.
A first cousin and rival of President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, Mr. Cojuangco was dogged for years by allegations that he had helped plot the assassination of her husband, Benigno Aquino, when Mr. Aquino returned to the Philippines in 1983 to lead the country’s opposition movement. Mr. Cojuangco denied any role in the killing.
A statement issued by the office of President Rodrigo Duterte, who in recent years has helped rehabilitate the Marcos name, said Mr. Cojuangco had made an “immense contribution to the socioeconomic development of the Philippines through the company’s operations in food, beverages, energy, power, oil refining and infrastructure.”
On Twitter, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. hailed Mr. Cojuangco as “Tito,” or uncle, adding, “You were a rock in my life.”
Eduardo Murphy Cojuangco Jr. was born on June 10, 1935, into a powerful family in Tarlac Province, north of Manila. He was in his 30s when he was elected to Congress and then governor of the province.
Known to his friends as Danding, he was said to be part of Mr. Marco’s inner circle of advisers when Mr. Marcos imposed martial law in 1972.
With the dictator’s help, Mr. Cojuangco built a fortune by taking over much of the country’s coconut industry. Controlling a fund derived from a tax on coconut farmers, he was later accused of skimming several hundred million dollars from it to build his business empire. He denied any impropriety.
When Mr. Marcos was ousted in 1986 and flown into exile in Hawaii by the United States Air Force, Mr. Cojuangco accompanied him on the plane and was later reported to be living in California.
Mr. Marcos is estimated to have stolen $10 billion during his rule. Little of it was ever recovered.
Mr. Cojuangco returned to the Philippines after Mr. Marcos died in Hawaii in 1989. Although his passport had been revoked, he slipped back into the country to the surprise of the government, which by then was led by his cousin, President Aquino.
Within days of his arrival, her opponents staged a coup and nearly succeeded in ousting her. Ms. Aquino accused her cousin of being a ringleader.
“The suspicious thing is that one week after he returned, there was a rebellion,” she said. “Our next election is not until 1992. Those who want to be president will have to wait until then.”
In fact, that was his next move. He founded a political party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, and ran for president in 1992 on a ticket with Mr. Estrada, a popular actor, as his running mate.
In an interview with The New York Times before the election, Mr. Cojuangco said he had admired Mr. Marcos, denied enriching himself at the expense of the coconut farmers and said that he had no role in the assassination of Benigno Aquino.
Mr. Cojuangco placed third in a field of seven, but Mr. Estrada won the vice presidency, which is decided by a separate ballot.
Mr. Estrada went on to win the presidency in 1998 as the candidate of Mr. Cojuangco’s party, giving Mr. Cojuangco a powerful ally in the presidential palace once again.
During the Marcos years, he had acquired shares in the San Miguel Corporation with money from his coconut enterprise. But after Mr. Marcos was ousted, a Philippine court denied Mr. Cojuangco the right to vote the shares because he was accused of acquiring them illegally.
After becoming president, Mr. Estrada helped him regain control of San Miguel by authorizing the return of shares held by the government.
Mr. Estrada was forced from office for incompetence and corruption in 2001 and was eventually convicted of illegally accumulating wealth while in office. But Mr. Cojuangco held on to San Miguel and continued to expand and diversify the company.
At his death, Forbes estimated his worth at $1.1 billion and ranked him as the 16th wealthiest person in the Philippines.
Mr. Cojuangco is survived by his partner and their two children, as well as by four children with his former wife, according to local news reports.
He was an avid supporter of basketball and owned three teams through San Miguel, including the San Miguel Beermen. His death was mourned by the Philippine Basketball Association, which thanked him in a tweet for his contributions to the league.
Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting from Manila.