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Nicaragua divided over death of revolutionary leader

Tomás Borge was the last living founder of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN).

By Tim RogersCorrespondent / May 3, 2012

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, center right, and first lady Rosario Murillo, center left, attend the funeral of the late Tomás Borge in Managua, Nicaragua, Wednesday, May 2.

Arnulfo Franco/AP

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua

The firebrand revolutionary and last living founder of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), Comandante Tomás Borge, died this week, reopening old divisions from the tumultuous decade of revolutionary rule and counterrevolutionary war in the 1980s.

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To his supporters, Mr. Borge was a stalwart revolutionary who fought bravely and endured months of imprisonment and torture to help overthrow the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979. He was both loved and feared by many Nicaraguans for his role in the insurrection in the 1970s and in the subsequent revolutionary government of the '80s, when he served as the iron-fisted minister of the interior dressed in Cuban-made, olive drab military uniforms. Critics claim Borge quickly went from victim to oppressor, repeating the torture and attrocities of the dictatorship he helped overthrew. 

The Sandinista Revolution became a cold war proxy and the United States boosted the Contras to fight the FSLN. 

As Sandinistas remember Borge’s life, they are calling him a “man of exemplary courage and principle,” “an example for the youth,” a “great revolutionary,” and even “a prophet of God.” Supporters remember him as a sensible and rational man who was both dedicated to the revolution, but humble enough to recognize the mistakes it made in the 1980s.

“We were victims of arrogance,” he told me in 2005, as we sat in his office amid walls covered in photos of Borge posing with a virtual "who’s who" list of US-identified bogymen: Fidel Castro, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and Yassir Arafat, to name a few. Borge also kept a photograph of Sandinista namesake Gen. Augusto Sandino posing with his father, a revolutionary from the 1930s.

Borge told me the next Sandinista government, which returned to power in 2007, would implement “more realistic” policies and not repeat the mistakes of land confiscations, nationalizations, or mandatory military service. And so far, despite a couple of notable stumbles, the Sandinista government of today has clearly set a different tack than it did in the 1980s.

René Núñez, president of the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly, said Borge was a man who “dedicated his life to the liberty of Nicaragua.”

“He defended Nicaragua; he was Nicaragua,” Núñez said.

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