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Proletarian issue 48 (June 2012)
Ben Bella and Tomás Borge: heroes of the anti-imperialist struggle
With the passing of Ahmed Ben Bella and Tomás Borge Martínez all oppressed people have lost two mighty champions.
Ahmed Ben Bella

Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria and one of the great revolutionary figures of Arab nationalism and the anti-colonial movement worldwide, died on 11 April at the age of 95.

Ben Bella was a central force in the Algerian revolution, which inspired anti-colonial struggles and the oppressed masses throughout the world, especially in the latter part of the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s.

He was also known as a symbol of internationalism. Under his leadership, independent Algeria not only played a key role in the pan-African and non-aligned movements, but extended combat solidarity to revolutionary struggles throughout the Arab world and Africa, as well as Latin America, and collaborated closely with socialist countries, particularly those at the cutting edge of the anti-imperialist struggle such as Cuba, Korea and Vietnam. He even invited the African-American revolutionary leader Malcolm X to join his government. In particular, he was a close comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara.

The Algerian fight for freedom was bitterly and tenaciously fought.

Contrary to colonial myths, when France seized Algeria in 1830, its education level was higher than that in France itself. But that was soon to change. Over 130 years of iron-fisted rule, Algeria’s social and economic life was dismantled and devastated and its people impoverished.

As with the British in Ireland, and the Japanese in Korea, successive French governments, including those formed by the social democrats, declared Algeria to be not merely a colony but actually a part of France. In accordance with this, some 1.5 million French settlers, known as colons, took over the best land, more than 55 percent of the total, controlling farming, trade and such industry as existed.

As Frederick Engels observed in 1857: “From the first occupation of Algeria by the French to the present time, the unhappy country has been the arena of unceasing bloodshed, rapine and violence.” (‘Algeria’, The New American Cyclopedia)

Led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), the entire Algerian people rose up and, from 1954-1962, fought the French colonialists with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on.

China, under the revolutionary leadership of Mao Zedong, extended every possible support within its means at that time to the Algerian revolution. However, the Soviet Union, under the baleful influence of Khruschevite revisionism, confined itself to hand-wringing and pious calls for peace, a stance in which they were joined by the leaders of the French Communist Party (PCF).

The French responded to the Algerian uprising with the utmost barbarism, relying on terror, torture and large-scale atrocities. They deployed half a million troops and bombed and strafed entire villages. Three million Algerians were left homeless and two million were interned in concentration camps. By the time the French finally admitted defeat, they had killed more than one million Algerians, approximately 15 percent of the population, and orphaned 300,000 children.

Born on 25 December 1916 into a family of mountain peasants, near the border with Morocco, Ben Bella joined the nationalist Algerian People’s Party at the age of 15.

But his real political awakening came at the end of the second world war. He was part of a segregated unit in the French army and a decorated soldier. However, in May 1945, as France celebrated Hitler’s defeat, French troops and settlers attacked Algerians protesting the cruelties of colonialism in the town of Setif. Some 45,000 Algerians were massacred in French military reprisals over the next six weeks. This was a turning point for Ben Bella, who left the French military and joined the national-liberation fight.

Ben Bella was one of the nine members of the Committee of Algerian Revolutionaries that gave birth to the National Liberation Front. Arrested by the French occupiers in 1949 following a raid on a post office to raise funds, he escaped to Cairo in 1952 after sawing through the bars of his prison cell. Once there, he was given shelter by Nasser’s government. Arrested again in 1956, when he was flying between Morocco and Tunisia, he was jailed in France until 1962.

In 1963, Ben Bella became the first elected president of independent Algeria. The new Algerian government inherited a country where the fleeing French settlers had razed fields and destroyed food supplies, hospitals, factories and machinery.

Ben Bella began a sweeping land-reform programme. He called for elected workers to run the country’s farms and factories.

The FLN adopted the Tripoli Programme, which championed mobilisation of the masses of workers and peasants to carry out a comprehensive agrarian reform; nationalisation of basic industry, transport, banks and foreign trade; collaboration with anti-colonial struggles around the world; and envisaged “the conscious construction of the country according to socialist principles with power in the hands of the people”.

Unfortunately, disagreements among Algeria’s revolutionaries led to Ben Bella’s overthrow in a coup in 1965. At first, he was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest, finally going into exile in Switzerland in 1980. He returned to Algeria in 1990. In all he was incarcerated for 24 years of his life.

The governments that followed Ben Bella moved slowly but steadily to the right, whilst preserving some of the essential gains of the revolution.

In 2006, Ben Bella gave an interview to Silvia Cattori, in which he spoke about his internationalism and world outlook:

“In Tunisia, in Morocco, in Vietnam, Algeria had become somewhat like the ‘mother of freedom struggles’; to support them was thus for us a sacred duty. When someone came to ask us for help, it was sacred. We helped them, even if we had only meagre means; we offered them arms, a little bit of money, and, on occasion, men.”

With the active collaboration of Che Guevara, who came to Algeria, “all the combatants who participated in the fight for freedom in South America came to Algeria; it’s from there that all those who fought left. We trained them, we arranged for the weapons to reach them, we created networks. Nelson Mandela and Amilcar Cabral themselves came to Algeria. It’s me who coached them; afterwards, they returned to lead the fight for freedom in their countries.

“I am not a Marxist, but I place myself resolutely at the left. I am a muslim Arab in my actions, oriented very much to the left in my convictions. That is why, even if I don’t share the Marxist doctrine, I always found myself on the side of all the leftist movements in the world, and of socialist countries like Cuba, China and the USSR that have led the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist fights. It’s with them that we have constituted a liberation front and brought our logistic support to armies to help their countries come out of colonialism and establish a nationalist regime.”

He also spoke of his faith in the revolutionary potential of young people in the imperialist countries, saying:

“I myself, speaking as a man of the South, note that something has changed in the North. There are young people who say ‘enough’. This perverse global system does not strike only the South but also the North.

“In the past we spoke of poverty, misery only in the South. Now there is a lot of misery in the North as well. This has become manifest: the global system was not made to serve the good of all, but to serve the multinational corporations. Thus, deep from within this North there is now a movement, there is an entire generation of youth who want to act, who go out onto the streets, who protest.”

Ben Bella remained politically active to the last. At the time of his death he held the position of chairman of the African Union’s advisory group in charge of conflict prevention. A close friend of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he actively opposed sanctions and war against Iraq and Libya.

Tomás Borge Martínez

Tomás Borge Martínez, the last surviving founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) of Nicaragua and a hero of the Latin-American revolution, died on 30 April, aged 81.

Borge joined Carlos Fonseca Amador and others in 1961 to found the FSLN. It was named after Augusto Cesar Sandino, who fought against US military intervention in Nicaragua in the 1930s. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega joined the front later and became its leader.

Borge was born on 13 August 1930 to a poor family in the city of Matagalpa, north of the capital, Managua. He left university before graduating and dedicated himself to the struggle against the hated Somoza family, which ran Nicaragua almost as an extended plantation from 1937 until it was toppled by the victorious Sandinista revolution in July 1979.

Imprisoned in 1956 for opposing the dictatorship, Borge managed to escape in 1959 and made his way to Cuba, where he secured support from the new revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. In 1961, he co-founded the FSLN.

Borge trained FSLN recruits for the armed struggle that was waged across both rural and urban areas, with the mass support of the people.

He was captured in Managua in 1976 and severely tortured before the FSLN seized the National Palace in 1978 and won his release, along with that of other Sandinista fighters. At the time of his arrest, his fellow revolutionary leader Carlos Fonseca, alongside whom Borge has now been laid to rest, told his comrades to “be tranquil because Tomás will not talk”. And, despite the torture, he did not.

His first wife, Yelba Mayorga, was tortured and killed by Somoza’s detested National Guard in 1979.

Borge was also a writer and poet, and in a poem addressed to his former captors, which echoes the poetic words of Irish martyr Bobby Sands that “our revenge will be the laughter of our children”, he wrote:

My personal revenge will be the right of your children to school and to flowers ... My personal revenge will be to say to you ‘good morning’ without beggars in the streets, when instead of jailing you I intend to shake the sorrow from your eyes.

Following the victory of the Sandinista revolution, which inspired an entire generation world-wide in the 1980s, Borge assumed the post of Minister of the Interior, which proved to be the most crucial frontline post for the defence of the revolution, which duties he carried out tirelessly, indefatigably and with iron resolve. He organised the Sandinista defence councils at grassroots level, known as the ‘eyes and ears of the revolution’, and organised and led the fight-back against the contra terrorists, who were organised, trained and armed by the United States to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 11-year-long war of terrorist attacks killed 30,000 people and ground down the people’s determination to resist the military offensive. Effectively, the US offered the population an end to the terror if the FSLN was replaced with a US client regime. In 1990, a war-weary population voted the Sandinistas out of office.

However, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas were at last elected back to government in 2006, and in 2007 Borge was appointed Nicaraguan Ambassador to Peru. In 2011, when the Sandinistas were again re-elected, Borge was also elected to parliament.

Borge was generally regarded as having the best grasp of Marxism and revolutionary theory among all the Sandinista leaders. Reporting his death, the news agency Associated Press (AP) wrote:

Borge was an incendiary speaker, combative personality and avid admirer of the communist governments in Cuba and north Korea.

Just last year, when he was asked who were the five people in the world he admired most, he replied: “First, Fidel Castro. Second, Fidel Castro. Third, Fidel Castro. Fourth, Fidel Castro. Fifth, Fidel Castro.”

Borge’s funeral was held in Managua on 2 May, turning into a massive display of support for the revolutionary ideals to which he devoted his life and featuring an emotional address from President Daniel Ortega, who also introduced the government delegations from Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador and Russia, as well as from progressive political parties in Panama, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa wrote in tribute: “I remember being moved by his literary works, his poetic activism and his pledge to serve the underprivileged. Latin America will remember him as a tireless freedom fighter, anti-colonial thinker and champion of continental sovereignty.

Correa also recalled these words of Borge: “I am convinced that loyalty exists, and that in some minds it is like marble and tastes like honey. These people you know you can trust. But you can also rely on the traitors, because they never change. Traitors do not change. He who is loyal is loyal to the end and until the end.

Such a loyal revolutionary was Tomás Borge Martínez. As Nicaraguan government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo, the wife of Daniel Ortega, said, he has become, “one of the dead who never die because he will always be among us”.

Long live the revolutionary lives and examples of Ahmed Ben Bella and Tomás Borge Martínez!
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