Thomas Borge
Thomas Borge; drawing by David Levine

When the Sandinista leader Tomás Borge was a boy in provincial Nicaragua, he formed, he tells us, an intimate bond with a brave and saintly Apache Indian named Winnetou. The Winnetou books, written by the German novelist Karl May, had millions of young readers around the world during the first half of this century. They are tales of an impossibly pure hero, an invincible fighter who is also gentle and kind and who, for his courage, honor, and chivalry, is beloved by all good folk and hated by villains. There is no moral ambiguity in the Winnetou novels; their characters have no complexity or mature emotion. All are either admiring friends of Winnetou’s or evil agents of darkness. They live in a simple, clearly defined world that appeals to children.

On the first page of his memoir, Borge acknowledges how deeply Winnetou influenced him. This noble savage, he writes, embodied loyalty, rectitude, and defense of the humble. “No one should attempt the impossible task of writing better western novels than Karl May,” he says. “His characters seem to be within arm’s reach in the next room. They reproduce the virtues we ourselves would like to possess, imitate what we are in our dreams; they shake our hands and depart with the implicit promise of returning.”

It was while reading the Winnetou novels that Borge became what he calls “a subversive, an enemy of the established order.” He perceived his rebellion against the ruling Somoza dynasty as comparable to Winnetou’s lifelong struggle for justice and decency. The dictator was “chief of the assassins, torturers and smugglers, intimate friend of the Yankees.” Borge and the other Sandinista rebels were “youthful students of revolutionary theory, mystics, radicals, cheerful and pure; dreamers who had renounced comforts, studies, university professions, family, everything for a higher form of fulfillment.”

Belief in the purity and nobility of the Sandinista cause kept the revolutionary fires burning in Nicaragua during the long years when the small band of guerrillas suffered defeat after defeat in their seemingly hopeless war against the Somoza family’s National Guard. They endured extreme privation and suffered the loss of all their original leaders except Borge. Their victory in July 1979 was so surprising that even many guerrilla commanders themselves could not believe, as they arrived in Managua following the dictator’s flight to exile, that they had taken power.

Tomás Borge has led a dramatic life at the center of an audacious revolutionary movement. He was born in Matagalpa in 1930, the only child of a pharmaceutical salesman and a woman who owned a small general store. She wanted her son to become a priest. But when he was still a young boy, the founder of the bloody ruling dynasty, Anastasio Somoza García, paid a visit to his school. Borge was one of several pupils who refused to shake Somoza’s hand, causing a local scandal. Later he helped organize a meeting to honor a teacher who had been fired for anti-Somoza views, and he led a student protest that was repressed by Guardsmen.

“Some days later I became conscious of my destiny,” he writes. “I knew it because of the accumulated obstruction in my breast and the extraordinary satisfaction I derived from being an active witness to these active demonstrations. I realized that my life would be devoted to combat, although at that moment I didn’t know the color of the uniform nor the stubbornness of my roots.”

While attending law school in León, Borge published leftist tracts and organized several protests. He was arrested following Somoza García’s assassination in 1956 and confessed that he had known “something about it” in advance. A military tribunal sentenced him to nine years in prison. He escaped with the help of supporters and slipped out of the country, determined to continue his struggle against the dictatorship.

At the university, Borge had fallen under the spell of another student from Matagalpa, Carlos Fonseca, who wore thick eyeglasses and read books of politics and social comment like The Grapes of Wrath. Fonseca had been deeply affected by the American-engineered overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, and two years later, representing the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, he had traveled to Moscow to attend the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students. He had a quiet but magnetic personality, and he attracted a coterie of intense admirers. He conceived the strategy of the Sandinista war and directed it until his death in combat in 1976. He seemed to Borge a reincarnation of Winnetou, “ever cordial and incisive” with a “firm and amiable manner.” Fonseca’s guerrilla pseudonym was Jesús, and his apostles followed him with religious faith, even calling their rebel movement la iglesia—the church. “Carlos Fonseca was the principal founder of our dreams, the leader, once and for all, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front,” Borge writes lovingly. “Carlos’ thought flowed like an untamed river.”


During the early 1960s, acting on orders from Fonseca, Borge led a series of armed forays into remote regions of Nicaragua. Most of the idealists who followed him, unschooled in tactics, poorly armed, isolated from any base of civilian support, and unaccustomed to the rigors of guerrilla life, were quickly tracked down and killed. Borge fled to Cuba, where he took advanced military training courses and met Che Guevara, who gave him $20,000 for the Sandinista cause. For Borge, Guevara was, like Carlos Fonseca and Fidel Castro, an incarnation of Winnetou, something more than an ordinary mortal. “Che is the man we would all have liked to be, if only for a few hours,” Borge writes. “It must cause infinite pleasure not to know what arrogance is, never to have been scarred by a double standard of morality.”

Having failed as a guerrilla leader and now a little too old for the rugged life of a jungle fugitive, but burning more passionately than ever with revolutionary zeal, Borge in the 1970s became a principal organizer of the spreading Sandinista underground. It was during this period that the mature Borge, the man who would later become Nicaragua’s powerful interior minister, emerged as a distinctive character. His mission was deception, and as a result nearly everything he did involved some kind of lie to someone. As he later admitted, he found clandestine life fascinating. He became a master of conspiracy and spying and also of detecting conspirators and spies. So confident was he of his ability to deceive that he sometimes emerged from hiding to walk the streets of Managua in broad daylight, dressed in the uniform of an officer in the National Guard.

The Patient Impatience will disappoint many readers interested in the Sandinistas. For one thing, although written in the late 1980s, it ends several years before the rebels’ victory, and is thus entirely about a period when the Sandinista Front was a tiny, marginal guerrilla band that was able to rob banks and attack the odd National Guard patrol but had no real prospect of victory. Borge has nothing to say about the Sandinistas’ emergence as a true fighting force in 1978 following an outburst of national rage at the murder of the newspaper publisher Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who had, in fact, detested Sandinista ideology (and whose widow Violeta Chamorro was elected to replace the Sandinista government in February 1990). There is not a word about Jimmy Carter’s last-minute abandonment of Somoza, or about the final guerrilla offensive or the satisfactions of victory—nor is anything said about Borge’s years as interior minister, when he was idealized by some as a defender of the revolutionary faith and denounced by others as a repressive police chief who enthusiastically brutalized his victims.

Even in this account of his life until 1976, Borge is highly selective. His book is a collection of sketches and impressions evidently influenced by the “magic realism” of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American novelists. Indeed, Borge’s life, like that of Nicaragua itself, sometimes seems to have sprung from a magic realist novel, and he has apparently tried to write that novel. It is a scrapbook from the early life of a spirited young man who was indignant at the oppression he saw around him and who, influenced by Marxism and the guerrilla ideals of Castro and Guevara, devoted himself with almost superhuman tenacity to a cause he considered sublimely just. Not to admire him after reading his account would be like not admiring Winnetou.

Borge writes in bursts of emotion and sentiment, sometimes awkwardly but often in a prose that is almost poetic. He has little to say to historians, who would like to hear some of his secrets, and his brief portraits of guerrilla comrades and others who passed through his life are perceptive but maddeningly incomplete. He acknowledges that he helped run the Sandinista underground, for example, but gives almost no account of the intricate security systems he helped develop. He mentions that he participated in bank robberies, but tells nothing of how it felt behind the mask. He passes with only a few words over dramatic episodes like the death of the Sandinista militant Patricio Argüello during the PLO-sponsored hijacking of an El Al jet in 1970 or the factional disputes that split the Sandinista Front for years.

At a few points, Borge writes intensely and directly. Most poignant is his meditation on his daughter Bolivia, for whom, he says, he could not care properly because he was devoting his life to the clandestine cause. Bolivia Borge became a prostitute at the age of sixteen and later, after an argument with her father, committed suicide. “She sold herself in order to live,” he writes, “because I didn’t give her a penny for survival, because that was the price I had to pay.”


On a February night in 1976, Guardsman trapped Borge, stopping his car in traffic and closing in on him. Seeing what was happening, he pulled his pistol from his belt and told the woman beside him, “Time to die.” A patrol officer holding a Thompson submachine gun approached him.

He stopped a few meters away, looked at me coldly, contemptuously, arrogantly. Before he could shoot, my bullet ripped away that mask. I saw his eyes go blank as he fell to the ground like the feather of a bird on a summer afternoon.

Borge tried to escape, but was quickly captured. President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, commander of the National Guard, at first tried to deny that Borge had been taken prisoner but was ultimately forced to admit it. The Sandinistas mounted a protest campaign. Mothers led marches to the Red Cross and United Nations offices in Managua, and students covered walls with the ominous slogan, “If Tomás Dies…” Inside his prison cell, Borge started a series of hunger strikes that made him a national figure, the only publicly known Sandinista. He spent two years in jail, most of the time hooded, handcuffed, or in solitary confinement, and suffered some of the most brutal beatings administered to any captured Sandinista. When guards offered him plates of hot food to tempt him to stop his hunger strikes, he resisted by telling himself, “That isn’t chicken meat; it’s the flesh of an old alcoholic who died of syphilis.”

“In the final analysis,” he concludes astonishingly, “it was easy, so easy that at times it provokes a desire to be put to the test again.”

Tomás Borge was the most elusive of the leaders who dominated news from Nicaragua during the years when the Reagan administration was obsessed with destroying the Sandinista regime. He assumed new identities at will. Sometimes his whims, or the exigencies of the moment, were reflected in the uniform he chose to wear. Like the other eight ruling comandantes, he had a specially designed military uniform, but he wore it only when he appeared with the other leaders. On other formal occasions he wore a Soviet-style tunic and matching cap. When visiting the countryside, he usually wore guerrilla fatigues with the insignia of one or another of his ministry’s special units. He also had a police uniform and a full firefighting outfit, complete with rubber overcoat. Nicaraguans never knew which uniform, or which Borge, would turn up on any given day. The only element of continuity was his own awareness that he was always playing one role or another, his seeming sense that he was moving through life like a character in a yet-unwritten novel.

During his years in power, Borge presented himself as a lover of culture and literature, so fervent an admirer of Madame Bovary that he named one of his daughters Emma. He was something of a dandy, and set aside several hours each week for a facial massage. He took pride in his ability to seduce women, considering each conquest an incentive to another, more delicious one. He craved sophisticated company and argument, so much so that when his informers told him the American ambassador was entertaining interesting guests, he would sometimes telephone at dinner time and request a last-minute invitation.

To some outsiders, Borge seemed an incarnation of that romantic guerrilla ideal called the “new man.” They saw in him an intellectual who was also a man of action, a hero who read history and then set out to make it. In this view Borge and his comrades of the 1960s were visionaries who saw the corruption at the heart of the relationship between the United States and Nicaragua, denounced it clearly, and won an improbable revolutionary victory after proving their patriotic commitment beyond all doubt. Once in power, they defied the United States in a horrific conflict that cost dearly in blood and treasure.

During those years, no Sandinista leader pleaded his country’s case more eloquently than Borge. Alone among the nine ruling comandantes, he had a worldwide circle of admirers. Many came to visit him in Managua, where he put them up in “protocol houses” confiscated from the departed rich and charmed them with late-night monologues. They found a man full of intriguing contradictions, a poet who had become a warrior, an atheist who collected crucifixes, a torture victim who was put in charge of a police and prison system. Borge liked to boast that he was an expert at political as well as sexual seduction. Apparently he was the only comandante whose persuasive power the Reagan administration feared, because he was the only one whose applications to visit the United States were routinely rejected by the State Department.

From such a complex man, more might have been expected than what we find in The Patient Impatience. Borge has chosen to write about only one period in his life, the time when he was, like Winnetou, a brave hero persecuted and hunted by agents of rich exploiters. He does not discuss his years as interior minister, when he did not seem so heroic. As a result, his memoir reveals no more about his true identity than the Winnetou novels reveal about the true life of Apaches.

Borge might have made a more systematic effort to describe the origins and growth of the Sandinista Front, and to explain his considerable part in its triumph. But he evidently has little interest in writing history, unless it is the kind of history that magic realists write. In his writings and speeches, Borge has claimed that he and other Sandinista leaders were inspired above all by their love for ordinary people and their outrage at the injustices suffered by the Nicaraguan people. Yet when the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua, they imposed a government that disrupted every aspect of national life, polarized the population, and caused hundreds of thousands to flee into exile; they failed to avoid a tragic civil war and, between the war and their own mismanagement, they bankrupted the treasury. The Sandinista Front, founded to liberate Nicaragua, helped lead the nation to ruin and was ultimately voted out of power. Borge gives no hint that he has reflected on these failures and contradictions.

In his years as an underground fighter, Borge acquired a hardness not always tempered by magnanimity. As interior minister he was in charge of a shadowy network of secret police squads, jailers, infiltrators, political saboteurs, and black agents that spread throughout Central America. Within Nicaragua he was more feared than loved. Sometimes his men beat their victims or cruelly confined them in tiny cells. Sometimes they abducted, murdered, and secretly buried them. The war in Nicaragua was exceptionally brutal, as fratricidal conflicts often are, and Tomás Borge was one of the leaders responsible for that brutality.

Borge sought to dominate Nicaraguan politics through an elaborate system of rewards and punishments, sometimes petty and sometimes severe. Hardly any of the politicians active in Nicaragua during the 1980s avoided a confrontation with him. Some were bribed or offered bribes, while others were arrested without being charged and abused in prison. Several were scared into leaving the country. A few are convinced Borge plotted to kill them.

There is plenty of evidence to condemn Borge for repressing the rights of Nicaraguans, closing their newspapers, exiling their priests, and harrassing their political leaders. Since he is capable of flashes of disarming honesty on other matters, he might himself acknowledge that evidence. If he is as reflective as he presents himself, there must have been times when he realized that his tactics contradicted the idealistic views he so forcefully proclaimed. As a master debater and amateur theologian, Borge would seem eminently qualified to defend himself. The Patient Impatience, however, is not that defense. It not only ends just before the Sandinistas took power, but it does not consider the deep inconsistencies between their words and their actions. None of the comandantes who ruled Nicaragua during the 1980s has yet given a frank account of their years in power. In the voluminous literature about Sandinista Nicaragua, their versions of the truth remain untold.

This Issue

December 3, 1992