MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Teary-eyed Sandinista leaders bade farewell to the "older brother" of their revolution at a dramatic midnight funeral and President Daniel Ortega declared three days of national mourning. First lady Rosario Murillo said in a cracking voice that movement founder Tomas Borge was "one of the dead who never die."
The pomp of Borge's send-off reflects not only his role in Nicaraguan history, but appears to be a bid by Ortega to build his government's legitimacy and perhaps even pave the way for his own immortalization in the pantheon of the Central American country's greats, according to analysts.
"The language was about selling the idea that those who are with the Ortega regime are touched by the grace of God," said Dora Maria Tellez, a former Sandinista commander turned dissident.
Borge, the last living founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front that toppled Nicaragua's U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1979, died on April 30 at age 81 after being hospitalized for pneumonia and other ailments. He was buried in early May.
He was the country's powerful interior minister from 1979 to 1990 and was considered a hard-liner who admired North Korea's and Cuba's communist governments. Working from a building that bore the slogan "Guardian of the People's Happiness," he ran the police, prisons and immigration agencies, wielding them against the party's opponents and media outlets, which lead to accusations of human rights abuses.
When voters ousted Ortega's Sandinista government in 1990, Borge's power waned and he became a congressman. Even Ortega's return to office in 2007 did little to help his political fortunes. After clashing with Murillo, the party's elder statesman was relegated to the post of ambassador to Peru.
But in death, Borge has been given near-saint status by Ortega and his wife. Critics such as Tellez suggest they are using the mourning to bolster the legitimacy of a government whose last election was widely questioned.
"I'm certain that Tomas is bursting with joy for these youths, these workers, this united and social Nicaragua we're building, of which Tomas was one of the older brothers," a moist-eyed Ortega told thousands of Sandinistas supporters as Borge was buried alongside Carlos Fonseca Amador, a fellow Sandinista founder.
Nicaraguans say this is a country that lives with its dead. After Somoza was toppled by the Sandinista Revolution, streets with names linked to Somoza's government were re-baptized with names of guerrilla heroes.
The purpose "was to create a reference for unconditional support for the cause; it was to create models to follow, examples to draw the youth into the fight against the dictatorship," said Sociologist Manuel Ortega Hegg of the Central American University. "It was a way to create a revolutionary mystique,"
But Ortega's promotion of Borge has a different purpose, the sociologist said: It is a way of "preparing the road for his own enshrinement."
On various occasions, the president has said that "he has a special mission from God in this world ... He has been sent by God. And from there to Olympus is a short distance," Ortega Hegg said.
For Sandinista dissident Tellez, the motive for the lavish and symbolism-laded funeral for Borge goes back to questions raised about Ortega's government.
Nicaragua's opposition charges that his most recent election win was illegal since the constitution banned sitting presidents from re-election. When Nicaragua's congress failed to lift the ban, the Sandinista-dominated Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional ban was unconstitutional. Ortega won the election with more than 60 percent support, but opponents said the vote was tainted by fraud.
"With all the pomp that has surrounded the burial (of Borge), what Ortega has sought is a great act of conjuring and political legitimization," Tellez said.