MANAGUA, Nicaragua – 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 in 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 in 1979 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.”
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.
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.
Borge is survived by his second wife and four children.