Nicaraguans are mourning the death of Tomás Borge, the last surviving founder of the guerrilla movement that overthrew Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Among those who followed Borge’s career is Stephen Kinzer who reported from Nicaragua for the New York Times in the 1980s.
Kinzer says when the tables were turned, and Borge was put in charge of the secret police who had once tortured him, the Sandinista leader followed many of the same practices of the iron-fisted leader he helped topple.
“It’s a sort of a cautionary tale for those of us who like to think revolutions change everything,” say Kinzer.
Borge was imprisoned under President Anastasio Somoza in 1977, and was held hooded and handcuffed for extended periods. He started a series of hunger strikes and gained a national profile in Nicaragua. In 1978, he was freed after the Sandinistas took the Nicaraguan Congress hostage, and bargained for the release of 50 prisoners.
Sandinista rebel fighters toppled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Borge, a rival of President Daniel Ortega, became the interior minister.
“He ran the same infamous prison in Nicaragua that Gen. Somoza the old dictator had run. And from what we heard from people who emerged from there, conditions hadn’t really improved,” says Kinzer.
Nicaraguans voted the Sandinistas out of power in 1990, but returned the party to the presidency in 2007.
Kinzer says throughout Borge’s career, he was well-known as a master of seduction in both his political and private lives.
“A great revolutionary is always by definition a great seducer. Because they’re the same thing. You have to persuade someone that what you want them to do is what they themselves actually want to do,” says Kinzer.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. The Central American nation of Nicaragua is officially in mourning. That’s in honor of Tomas Borge, the last living founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front died Monday at the age of 81. His passing is a major milestone for Nicaragua. Borge not only helped launch the Sandinista movement that eventually toppled the hated Somoza dictatorship in 1979, he was a major player in the Sandinista government that followed, which became a major headache for the United States in the 1980′s. Stephen Kinzer was a New York Times reporter in Nicaragua back then. He says that for a time, Borge embodied for many Nicaraguans the ideals of the romantic rebel poet who stood in defiance of the American imperialists.
Stephen Kinzer: Borge was one of the last survivors of a generation of idealistic radicals in Latin America who were completely inspired by Fidel Castro, and wanted to do in their own countries what Castro had done in Cuba. In fact, Borge was once asked to name his five most admired figures and he named Fidel Castro in all five positions. He did spend years fighting at a time when fighting against the dictatorship seemed crazy. He was one of the very few who was at it for 20 years by the time that the Sandinista’s took power. He felt that entitled him to a good share of responsibility and a good share of responsibility is what he got.
Werman: Well, I think what may be most intriguing for many Americans who don’t know that much about Tomas Borge is his rivalry with the better known Daniel Ortega, who became President of Nicaragua. Borge saw himself as a contender.
Kinzer: Borge really felt that he was running the country and made a lot of decisions on his own. When it came to security matters, he was the boss. During the Sandinista contra war in the 1980′s, for example, he decided that the way to treat the Maisto Indians on the Atlantic coast was harshly. He did not have any tolerance of their ideas of ethnic autonomy and he was quite ruthless.
Werman: Right, and another example is when he was put in charge of the secret police after the Sandinista’s overthrew Somoza in 1979. He had been a torture victim, now the tables were turned.
Kinzer: It’s true. He ran the same infamous prison in Nicaragua that General Somoza, the old dictator, had run, and from what we heard from people who emerged from there, conditions hadn’t really improved. He actually was a precursor of something that we saw happening in later years with the Sandinista movement, and that is that it became almost the mirror image of the Somoza dictatorship.
Werman: Borge wrote a memoir of The Patient Impatience and in it he writes about Che Guevara. He is the man we would all have liked to be, if only for a few hours. It must have caused infinite pleasure not to know what arrogance is, never to have been scarred by a double standard of morality. Implicit in that writing, Stephen Kinzer, is kind of an honesty to see in himself fallibility. What was that fault line for Borge, where was he?
Kinzer: Borge felt that he could manipulate anybody, and a lot of evidence supported his belief. He was one of the greatest seducers of women I ever met in my life. He was famous for this in Nicaragua. I even knew an American woman in Nicaragua that he seduced over the phone. After 20 minutes on the phone, she was on her way downstairs to get a car that he had sent over to pick him up, and I once asked him about this. How do you do this, and he had a very interesting answer. He said a great revolutionary is always, by definition, a great seducer because they’re the same thing. You have to persuade someone that what you want them to do is what they themselves actually want to do. He was very aware of his ability to manipulate people. He took a little pride in it. On the other hand, it gave him a kind of a cynicism to realize how easily this can be done.
Werman: Stephen, remind us of the fate of Borge and his fellow Sandinistas when they returned to power in 2007.
Kinzer: What happened essentially was that of the either other commandants with whom Daniel Ortega ruled during the 1980′s, seven turned against him. They denounced him for being a dictator and tried to take over the Sandinista party from him. Borge remained faithful to Ortega along with, I guess, just one other commandant, so they were an isolated group, but they wound up victorious. Now, with the Sandinistas back in power, I think they’ve lost all revolutionary illusions and we see that although there is a certain proclaimed interest in the poor, the fact is that maintaining themselves in power is all that the Sandinista’s are about now and this is something that we thought would never happen. It is a sort of a cautionary tale for those of us who would like to think that revolutions change everything.
Werman: And the rebel poet figure, also a thing of the past?
Kinzer: I think the image of this romantic Che Gavara type figure, who could wipe away all injustice and usher in an era of freedom and peace for everybody, died partly in Cuba. It certainly died a cruel death in Nicaragua. The world is a more realistic place now and in a way, the loss of that romantic ideal that was inspired in many parts of Latin America by Fidel Castro, is sad. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a function of growing up and realizing how the world really works.
Werman: I think there’s still a book to be written though on revolution and seduction.
Kinzer: And Tomas Borge will undoubtedly be one of the main figures.
Werman: Stephen Kinzer, a Professor of International Relations at Boston University. He’s also the author of “Blood of Brothers, Life and War in Nicaragua”. Stephen, thank you very much.
Kinzer: Thank you.
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