Tomas Borge, last Sandinista guerilla, dies aged 81
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Tomas Borge Martinez, the last member of the National Sandinista Liberation Front that overthrew the US-backed Nicaraguan government in 1979, died at age 81 overnight Monday. Borge had helped found the guerilla movement in 1961.
AP - Tomas Borge Martinez, the last surviving founder of the Sandinista guerrilla movement that overthrew Nicaragua’s U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorship in 1979 and replaced it with a leftist system criticized for its own repressive measures, died Monday night. He was 81.
Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega, announced the death in a simultaneous broadcast on Radio Ya and other stations. Murillo, who also serves as a government spokeswoman, did not give a cause of death, but the military had said previously that Borge was being treated for pneumonia and other ailments.
Borge joined with Carlos Fonseca Amador and others in 1961 to found the National Sandinista Liberation Front. It was named for Augusto Cesar Sandino, who fought against U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua in the 1930s. Ortega joined the front later and became its leader.
“Like Carlos Fonseca, he (Borge) is one of the dead who never die,” Murillo said the emotional announcement, her voice appearing to break at times. “He will always be with us in the Sandinista Front.” She said memorial and funeral plans for Borge would be announced later.
An incendiary speaker, combative personality and avid admirer of the communist governments in Cuba and North Korea, Borge was central to both the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the establishment of a junta and then elected Sandinista government. He became the target of the Contra rebels supported by the Reagan administration.
Jailed twice by the Somoza’s brutal dynastic dictatorship, Borge was himself accused of human rights violations as the powerful interior minister during the 1985-90 elected Sandinista administration, until it was voted out of power. Working from a six-story building that bore the slogan "Guardian of the People’s Happiness," he controlled the police, immigration agents, jails and even firefighters, often using his nearly unbounded powers to punish the Sandinistas’ enemies in the press, Roman Catholic Church and private business.
Miskito Indians living along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast alleged Borge orchestrated the displacement and killing of Miskitos suspected of anti-Sandinista activities, said Marcos Carmona, president of Nicaragua’s Standing Commission on Human Rights. He was also accused of ordering the killing of 37 opposition members in a jail in the city of Granada during President Daniel Ortega’s first term in office, something Borge always denied.
A staunch defender of the Sandinistas and Ortega, who won back the presidency in 2007 and was re-elected last year, Borge once wrote that “the return of the right is inconceivable” and pledged before the 2011 presidential election that the Sandinistas would stay in power “forever.” Asked that year who he most admired, he responded: “First, Fidel Castro. Second, Fidel Castro. Third, Fidel Castro. Fourth, Fidel Castro. Fifth, Fidel Castro.”
Congressman Jacinto Suarez called Borge “a transcendental figure in Nicaraguan history, not just for his founding of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, but for his fight to free the Nicaraguan people from Somoza’s dictatorship ... I knew him for 40 years and we always had a friendly relationship, but due to his strong character it was impossible not to have some kind of rift with him.”
Renowned Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli, a Sandinista who later broke with the movement, found a tragic trajectory in Borge’s life.
“For a good portion of the Nicaraguan revolution, Tomas Borge sought to embody its free-flowing, original character,” Belli said. “Grandiose and unpredictable, he could be tough with one hand and extremely generous with the other. He was a good friend of his friends. After 1990, I have the sense he gave up his revolutionary illusions ... He ended up a tragic-comic figure.”
Still, Belli said Monday that Borge’s death “has made me very sad. I feel as if an era of Sandinismo died with him, notwithstanding the fact that he did not end his life as valiantly as he once lived it.”
Born on Aug. 13, 1930, to a poor family in the city of Matagalpa, north of the capital, Borge left university before graduating and dedicated himself to the struggle against the hated Somoza family, which ran Nicaragua almost as an extended plantation from 1937 until it was toppled by the Sandinistas in July 1979.
Economists estimate the Somozas owned about 20 percent of the country’s cultivable land, as well as sugar mills, banks, credit companies, cattle ranches, fishing fleets, construction companies, florists and other businesses.
Borge received military training in Cuba, and in 1956 he was arrested and jailed for three years on charges of involvement in a plot that ended with dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia’s assassination by the poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez. Borge escaped from jail and took refuge in Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica.
After returning to Nicaragua, Borge helped found the Sandinista movement, which began small-scale armed actions against the dictatorship about a decade after its founding.
In January 1978, the Somoza regime was seriously weakened when opposition journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of the newspaper La Prensa, was murdered by a hired gunman named Domingo Acevedo and four accomplices. Chamorro’s widow, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, blamed the assassination on officials in the former Somoza government, who fled into exile after the dictator was toppled. All five gunmen were later convicted, but Mrs. Chamorro pardoned them after she was elected president in 1990.
Imprisoned for subversive activities at the time of Chamorro’s killing, Borge was liberated in August 1978 by a Sandinista commando force that attacked the National Palace, took legislators hostage and traded them for a group of Sandinista guerrillas who then escaped to Cuba.
Borge became minister of the interior after the Sandinista victory in July 1979 that toppled Somoza Debayle, who was the son of the slain Somoza Garcia.
As interior minister, Borge was accused of expelling and harassing clergymen during the war against the Contras, imposing strict censorship of the press and closing media outlets.
In August 1982, the Rev. Bismark Carballo, director of Catholic Radio, was arrested by Sandinista police, stripped naked and taken to a police station. The official press at the time said he had been attacked by a jealous husband who found the priest with his wife.
At about the same time, Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega and four priests were expelled from Nicaragua, accused by the government of helping the U.S.-backed Contras.
A businessman allied with the opposition, Jose Castillo Osejo, charged that he was taken to Borge’s office and was beaten by the minister.
Borge also imposed strict censorship on La Prensa, whose director, Mrs. Chamorro, ended Sandinista rule by being elected president in 1990.
During Borge’s time in power, the government created Sandinista Defense Councils known as "the eyes and ears of the revolution" which exist today as Citizen Empowerment Councils run by Rosario Murillo, the wife of Daniel Ortega who is secretary of communication and citizenship.
The reputation of Borge and other Sandinista officials were hurt by what Nicaraguans called the “pinata” – the hurried distribution of confiscated properties to Sandinista officials in the weeks before they left office after losing the 1990 election. A former comrade, poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal, wrote a book alleging that Borge was a millionaire, something he vigorously denied.
After Mrs. Chamorro’s 1990 election victory, Borge became a congressman for the Sandinista National Liberation Front and was serving as ambassador to Peru when he fell ill.
Borge is survived by his second wife and four children.