Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Glenn Garvin: Death of a tyrant

— McClatchy Newspapers

When the Marxist Sandinista party he had helped found was driven from power in Nicaragua, it understandably took Tomas Borge some time to adjust to the new realities. Accustomed to local journalists gravely listening to his addlebrained theories on economics as if their lives and liberty depended on it - which, of course they literally did - he was quite unprepared when a reporter broke in with a rascally question during a radio interview.

"Comandante, what everyone really wants to know is if the rumors all these years are true," the reporter asked. "Do you just have one (testicle)?"

"What are you talking about?" Borge spluttered. "My wife just had twins. Here, you want to see them?" From the reporter's flustered squawks that followed, it was apparent that Borge wasn't talking about the babies.

Borge's death from a respiratory ailment last week, a few months short of his 82nd birthday, was even more revealing - though in a much different way. The outpouring of praise for this torturer, thief and assassin from Latin America's left-wing pseudo-democracies showed that while they may outwardly embrace the ballot box, their hearts still long for AK-47s and barbed wire.

Borge's bloody term of office as Nicaragua's interior minister from 1979 to 1990 was an unrelieved reign of terror. Thousands of political opponents disappeared into his gulag of prisons (human-rights groups counted 800 in just the first 18 months), never to be seen again. Those who did reappear often did so as corpses, hideously disfigured by torture.

The vast majority were listed as "shot while trying to escape" - almost inevitably in the middle of the night, from a military vehicle in the middle of nowhere - but Borge didn't blush when his handiwork was exposed to the world. When the body of one political opponent was found in neighboring Honduras with his arms broken, his ears and genitalia cut off and much of his skin peeled away, Borge boasted that "the enemies of our people will fall one by one."

Borge's candor did not always find favor with Sandinista officials who had more refined senses of public relations. When Borge's security forces gunned down a popular coffee-grower named Jorge Salazar who was organizing a rival political party, the Managua newspaper La Prensa reported statements from eyewitnesses who said Salazar was unarmed. Borge promptly called in La Prensa's editor to warn him not to run any more stories on the subject. "Whether we killed him or not," Borge said, "your article infuriated the government."

Borge, on the rare occasions when foreign reporters pressed him about this stuff, inevitably replied that a few excesses were inevitable when battling an enemy as wily and relentless as capitalism. But actually Borge was a capitalist, amassing a fortune through businesses like his ironically named Panamanian company, Heroes and Martyrs Corp., which had a monopoly on importing TVs and other luxury goods. When the Sandinistas were ousted in 1990 elections, Borge emerged from the revolution with a massive portfolio of property including a hotel, as well as the ultimate corporate badge of honor - a young trophy wife.

That was the corrupt, murderous legacy that Latin America's bully-boy leftists were so proud to claim at Borge's funeral last week. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa called him "a symbol of unwavering struggle in search of justice, equality and solidarity in all Latin America" and said his own Citizen's Revolution - a thinly disguised form of mob rule - was drawn from Borge's thinking. "Comrade Borge was a man who dedicated his life to struggle against imperialism and in favor of the emancipation of the people," added Bolivia's Evo Morales. "A paradigm of revolutionary militancy and the love of life," chimed in Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

That's one way to look at it. Another is that of Joe Frazier, who covered Central America for the Associated Press in the 1980s. Frazier's wife Linda, who was also a reporter, died after her legs were blown off by a bomb planted at a press conference by one of Borge's hit teams, trying to kill one of his many enemies. (They missed; Linda and two other journalists were just revolutionary collateral damage.) "The fires of hell are not hot enough," observed Joe on Facebook last week. "I personally will write a check for more coal, tar and sulphur."

Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via email at

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