Tomas Borge: Last surviving founder of the Sandinistas

 

Comandante Tomas Borge was the last surviving founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) which overthrew the US-backed Nicarag-uan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. While his fellow guerrilla, the thick-spectacled Daniel Ortega, currently back as the country's president, was put forward as the public face of the revolution, Borge was the undoubted intellectual and hard-line driving force, and later the ruthless enforcer.

Having been tortured himself under Somoza, and having watched his wife being raped and killed by the dictator's National Guards, he was later accused of human rights abuses, including the mass murder of opponents, during his post-revolutionary years as Interior Minister, the most powerful job in the country at the time. He strongly denied those accusations, never faced trial and remained widely respected among his countrymen. Ortega ordered three days of national mourning after his death at 81 following a lung infection.

Miskito Indians – of mixed black slave and native American origin, many of whom speak a Creole English picked up from their former colonial masters – were among Borge's fiercest critics. They blamed him for displacing or murdering those of them, which was probably most of them, suspected of anti-Sandinista activities. Again, he denied such accusations.

He also denied detailed accusations from Colombian drug lords that he had personally given them safe haven and free transit rights to fly cocaine from Colombia to Mexico (thereafter smuggled across the border to the US) while he was Interior Minister.

In contrast to his hardline image, Borge was also a prolific writer and a fine poet, the author of many books and collections. When Ortega and the Sandinistas were re-elected last year, he was also voted in as a congressman in Nicaragua's unicameral legislature. By then (since 2007) he was already Nicaraguan Ambassador to Peru, perhaps a gift from Ortega since Borge's third wife was Peruvian. He held both posts until his death.

During the Sandinistas' first years in power, from 1979-90, initially as a revolutionary junta but latterly elected, Borge's Interior Ministry in Managua was the most feared building in the country. Fronted by a large Cuban or North Korean-style slogan reading "Guardian of the People's Happiness," it controlled the Central American nation's security forces, prisons, firemen and much more.

Borge personally created Sandinista "defence councils," a kind of neighbourhood watch similar to those used by Castro as "the eyes and ears of the revolution." You didn't criticise the Sandinistas publicly. He also cracked down on the media and the Catholic church, although he proclaimed himself a practising Catholic. Asked last year who were the five people in the world he admired most, he replied: "First, Fidel Castro. Second, Fidel Castro. Third, Fidel Castro. Fourth, Fidel Castro. Fifth, Fidel Castro." His old comrade Ortega was reportedly not impressed but had long since learnt not to question the man who had handed him the leadership of the revolution on a plate.

Putting forward the geeky-looking Ortega – the exact opposite of a Castro or Ché - was initially perhaps to distract the then US President Jimmy Carter's attention away from the revolutionary Central American state (and moretowards another 1979 revolution – in Iran). Carter's successor, RonaldReagan, from 1981, was not so easily distracted, however, and, apparently fearing the Sandinistas could somehow sweep through Central Americaand Mexico, and across the Rio Grande into Texas, gave massive backing and arms to the anti-Sandinista Contras, sparking a long war through the 1980s which killed 30,000. Borge was effectively the Nicaraguan commander during that war.

Tomas Borge Martinez was born in what was then the small town of Matagalpa, 80 miles north of Managua, in 1930. While attending law school in the city of Leon, he joined the Moscow-backed Nicaraguan communist party and sought the overthrow of the then dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia (father of Somoza Debayle). He was jailed for three years in a crackdown after Somoza Garcia was assassinated in 1956 but escaped in 1959 and fled to revolutionary Cuba for guerrilla training and to seek support from Cuba's new leader Fidel Castro.

In 1961, in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, he was one of three founders of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) in 1961. They named their movement after August Sandino, who had fought against US military intervention in Nicaragua in the 1930s.

Although Borge trained FSLN recruits in the run-up to the 1979 revolution, he was not believed to have led guerrillas in combat. He was captured in Managua in 1976 and severely tortured before a guerrilla takeover of the National Palace in 1978 won his release. His first wife, Yelba Mayorga, was raped and killed by National Guardsmen in the final weeks before the July 1979 revolution. In a poem, "My Personal Revenge", about his own torture, he wrote to his former captors: "My personal revenge will be the right of your children to school and to flowers ... My personal revenge will be to say to you 'good morning' without beggars in the streets, when instead of jailing you I intend to shake the sorrow from your eyes."

Among his other best-known books were Christianity and Revolution, The Patient Impatience and Face to Face with Fidel Castro, the latter based on revealing interviews with his mentor, the Cuban leader.

Commenting on Borge's death, one of Nicaragua's best-known writers, Gioconda Belli, a former Sandinista, wrote: "For a good portion of the Nicaraguan revolution, Tomas Borge sought to embody its free-flowing, original character. Grandiose and unpredictable, he could be tough with one hand and extremely generous with the other. After 1990, I have the sense he gave up his revolutionary illusions ... He ended up a tragic-comic figure."

Tomas Borge, revolutionary and politician: born Matagalpa, Nicaragua 13 August 1930; married Yelba Mayorga (died 1979), secondly Josefina Cerda (several children, two deceased), thirdly Marcela Perez Silva (two sons, one daughter); died Managua 30 April 2012.

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