In an uprising led by the Sandinistas, Somoza was finally toppled in 1979. The Sandinistas installed themselves in government, with Ortega as president, and set about creating a sometimes-harsh pro-Cuba system that swiftly earned the ire of the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Over the following decade, the United States spent millions of dollars to build and arm the Contra rebel forces that unsuccessfully fought to oust the Sandinistas. The Contras turned out to be a fractious, unruly army; the war, meanwhile, gave the Sandinistas a pretext for tightening repression at home.
That task fell most often to Borge, a short, stocky man with large ears and narrow eyes. He commanded the state security and intelligence apparatus from an imposing building housing the Interior Ministry. Outside hung a banner with the Orwellian slogan: Guardian of the People’s Happiness.
Borge was considered the most rigid member of the nine Sandinista comandantes who oversaw Nicaragua. Dissidents and opposition figures were frequently jailed or harassed, sometimes even killed. Especially targeted were clerics in the Roman Catholic Church and the Miskito Indians on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. Borge repeatedly shuttered or censored the opposition press.
I just read the news that on Monday, April 30, 2012, Tomas Borge had passed away at the age of 81 in Managua, Nicaragua. Tomas Borge helped found the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1961, and, through years of arduous struggle, helped lead the rag-tag Sandinista guerillas to victory against the heavily-armed Somoza dictatorship – a dictatorship armed and supported until the bitter end by the United States which had installed it in the first place in the 1930’s.
In the 1980s, Tomas Borge was a household name, revered by those of us on the left who saw him as a conquering David against Goliath, and vilified by, well, Goliath, in the form of the U.S. and its then-President Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan’s voice who was heard the loudest in this country on the subject of Borge and the Sandinistas. Reagan demonized Borge as a Communist menace to justify the U.S.’s own acts of real menace – the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors (found to be illegal by the World Court) and the arming of the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries, known as the Contras, who were led by the brutal National Guardsmen of Somoza who were ousted by the Sandinistas.
As some will recall, Reagan continued to arm the Contras – who never controlled one inch of Nicaraguan territory, but who engaged in acts of terror against the Nicaraguan population such as destroying hospitals, schools and electric power plants – even when the U.S. Congress outlawed such support. To do so, Reagan turned to a group of unsavory characters such as Oliver North who funded the Contras through the sale of cocaine as well as illegal arms sales to Iran. This came to be known as the Iran-Contra Scandal.
One of the most chilling accounts of the Contras I ever heard came from former CIA agent John Stockwell, whose speech a friend and I listened to many times on a tape cassette during college. Stockwell explained:
“I don’t mean to abuse you with verbal violence, but you have to understand what your government and its agents are doing. They [the Contras] go into villages, they haul out families. With the children forced to watch they castrate the father, they peel the skin off his face, they put a grenade in his mouth and pull the pin. With the children forced to watch they gang-rape the mother, and slash her breasts off. And sometimes for variety, they make the parents watch while they do these things to the children.”
In order to justify such crimes, Reagan claimed that the Sandinistas – who in fact were greatly improving the standard of living of the Nicaraguan people – were enslaving the Nicaraguan people with their own brand of Marxism-Leninism. Reagan singled out Borge above all other Sandinistas as the most pernicious and authoritarian figure. And, if you read the obituaries of Borge, you will see the influence of this slander, with him described as “ruthless” and as the Sandinista “enforcer.”
In fact, Borge was a brave soul who took his Christian faith, and its demand for the forgiveness of one’s enemies, seriously — first and foremost by joining in the decision to abolish the death penalty after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979. Of course, the U.S. would cynically exploit this act of forgiveness and kindness by organizing the National Guard, many of whom might have been put to death by a less benevolent revolution, into the Contras which would go on to terrorize Nicaragua for the next decade.
Borge had his own personal enemies among these National Guardsmen, a circumstance which truly put his ability to forgive to the test. During his years of struggle against the U.S.-sponsored Somosa dictatorship, he was arrested and subject to unspeakable acts of torture by the National Guard. This torture included the Guardsmen’s rape and murder of Borge’s wife before his very eyes.
The story I was told about this in 1987 when I was in Nicaragua was that Borge had vowed revenge against those who had tortured he and his wife. And, when the Sandinistas took power in 1979, Borge exacted this revenge on one of his torturers who he learned was in prison. Borge went to the prison, swung the door of the torturer’s jail cell open, and said “I have come to have my revenge against you as I vowed. For your punishment, you will have to walk the streets of this country and see the children of this country who you tortured for so long learn to read and write.”
Borge himself tells this story a bit differently in the book, Christianity and Revolution: Tomas Borge’s Theology of Life. In this book, Borge explains: “After having been brutal tortured as a prisoner, after having a hood placed over my head for nine months, after having been handcuffed for seven months, I remember that when we captured these torturers I told them: ‘The hour of my revenge has come: we will not do you even the slightest harm. You did not believe us beforehand; now you will believe us.’ That is our philosophy, our way of being.”
Borge was true to his word, and the Sandinistas, who are now the elected leaders in Nicaragua, are, by all accounts, improving the living conditions for the Nicaraguan people and bringing peace and stability to a country surrounded by other nations (Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico) which are drenched in the violence of a U.S.-sponsored drug war.
Tomas Borge went on to write the following poem with Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy about his act of personal forgiveness against his torturers. I will leave you with this poem:
My Personal Revenge
My personal revenge will be the right
of your children to school and to flowers;
My personal revenge will be to offer you
this florid song without fears;
My personal revenge will be to show you
the good there is in the eyes of my people,
always unyielding in combat
and most steadfast and generous in victory.
My personal revenge will be to say to you
good morning, without beggars in the streets,
when instead of jailing you I intend
you shake the sorrow from your eyes;
when you, practitioner of torture,
can no longer so much as lift your gaze,
my personal revenge will be to offer you
these hands you once maltreated
without being able to make them forsake tenderness.
And it was the people who hated you most
when the song was language of violence;
But the people today beneath its skin
of red and black [the colors of the Sandinista flag] has its heart uplifted.
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh. His red and black FSLN scarf remains carefully draped on a mantle in his office.
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