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.”