Tomas Borge Martinez, the last surviving founder of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Front and a hero of the 1979 revolution that toppled the decades-long Somoza family dynasty, has died at age 81, and the government Tuesday convoked tens of thousands of its followers to a rally that began three days of national mourning.
Borge, both beloved and feared, was the honorary president of the Sandinista Front of National Liberation, the party that’s dominated Nicaragua’s politics since 1979, even during the years from 1990 to 2006, when it was out of power.
As the interior minister from 1979 until 1990, Borge controlled the police, the jails and a secret police force that received advice from Cuban and East German colleagues. His agents harassed priests and others who were considered enemies of the revolution, and he oversaw intense censorship of the media.
In announcing Borge’s death Monday night, Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega and the spokeswoman for his government, hailed Borge as an immortal figure for the Sandinistas.
“Tomas is one of those who die but never dies,” Murillo said.
Thousands of Nicaraguans thronged Tuesday to the Palace of the Revolution to file past Borge’s wooden casket, which was flanked by two army cadets. A statement by the Nicaraguan army said Borge had died at the military hospital after a three-week illness.
A poet and writer, Borge was one of the most visible figures of the Sandinista Front in its early years in power, trotting the socialist world seeking allies. An official government website, el19digital.com, displayed photos of Borge with former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, deceased North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and other leftist heads of state. He was an ardent admirer of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Borge joined other Nicaraguan leftists to form the Sandinista Front in 1961 to fight the stranglehold of the Somoza family dictatorship, which ruled Nicaragua for 42 years until the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza, who fled the country only to be killed by a Sandinista assassination squad the next year in Paraguay.
Borge, who cut a stocky, short figure, often chomping on a Cuban cigar and donning dark glasses, helped chart the course of the uprising as it eroded the base of the Somoza dictatorship.
After falling prisoner to national guardsmen in 1976 and suffering torture at their hands, Borge became the focal point of a Sandinista Front plot to free dozens of jailed guerrillas. They stormed the National Palace as Congress was in session on Aug. 22, 1978, negotiating freedom for Borge and more than 50 other guerrillas and safe passage to Panama in exchange for ending the siege.
Murillo said Borge would be entombed in the Plaza of the Revolution, next to a mausoleum bearing the remains of another Sandinista Front founder, Carlos Fonseca, the ideologue behind the movement who befriended Borge in Matagalpa when Borge was only 13. Fonseca was killed in fighting in 1976.
Even Sandinistas who turned against the movement, condemning Ortega in recent years for tactics that they said mirrored the strong-arm rule he once helped overthrow, eulogized Borge on news of his death.
“Independent of our differences, my admiration, my respect and my affection” go to Borge, singer Luis Enrique Mejia wrote on his Facebook page.
“My song, Personal Vengeance, was inspired by something he said to his torturers upon the triumph of the Revolution: ‘My personal vengeance will be the right of your children to school and to flowers.’ ”
Borge, the most veteran of the onetime guerrillas, wasn’t the main face of the Sandinista Front once it came to power. That role fell to Ortega and his elder brother, Humberto, who led the Sandinista army. Borge was among the Sandinista leaders who enriched themselves in the weeks before they left office in 1990, voted out by Nicaraguans who were weary of rampant inflation and civil war. Borge and other Sandinista leaders seized assets from their ideological enemies in a land grab that was labeled “the pinata.”
During the next decade and a half, Borge remained loyal to Daniel Ortega even as other Sandinistas broke with him. When Ortega regained the presidency in 2006, he named Borge the ambassador to Peru. Borge’s second wife, Marcela, is a Peruvian.
He is survived by six children.