MATAGALPA—Of the countless bullets fired during Nicaragua’s brutal counterrevolutionary war in the 1980s, few shots have had a louder or more enduring international echo than the one that ended the young and promising life of U.S. citizen Benjamin Linder on April 28, 1987.
Linder’s death, which came one month after the release of the Tower Commission report on the Iran-Contra scandal, made international headlines and further polarized debate in Washington over U.S. involvement in Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua, the point-blank execution of the Oregonian idealist challenged hundreds of other young internationalists to ask themselves: “How far am I willing to go in my commitment to solidarity with the Sandinista Revolution?”
Linder’s death was a game-changer for hundreds of North American solidarity workers who were forced to face the grim reality that being a gringo didn’t necessarily protect them from the violence of the war around them.
“It forced us to open our eyes and see that the contra would kill U.S. citizens. I think we all had the notion that the contra would not kill U.S. citizens because the U.S. government was financing them and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” says Lillian Hall, a U.S. solidarity worker who came to Nicaragua in the mid 1980s, shortly after graduating from Cornell University. “It pushed those of us living here to really examine what lengths we were willing to go to. It raised the stakes for all of us, and forced us to really reflect on the meaning of solidarity.”
Ben Linder, a 27-year-old engineer and clown from Oregon, was ambushed and shot in the head while building a small hydroelectric plant in the rural, northern mountain community of San José de Bocay. He was the only U.S. citizen killed by the contra during the war in the 1980s.
Several days after Linder’s funeral in Matagalpa, his parents met with Hall and a small group of other internationalists living here. They wanted to know how their son’s death would affect everyone else’s solidarity work in Nicaragua.
“Ben’s parents told us, ‘If you are scared and want to go home, we totally understand that’,” remembers Hall, who today works on the board of the Casa Ben Linder meeting house in Managua. “Nine out of 10 of us said we are more committed than ever, and they can kill all of us. If you are truly in solidarity, you accept the risks and consequences of the people who you are working with—those who cannot get on a plane and fly to the U.S. because they are scared.”
Still, Linder’s death was a scary moment for many.
“All of us were thinking, ‘That could have been me just as easily’,” says Tim Takaro, a Canadian doctor who knew Linder from his work in Jinotega’s warzone health clinic in the 1980s.
Some foreigners think the contra killed Linder intentionally to send a message to other internationalists working in solidarity with the Sandinista regime. So, shortly after his death, they decided to send a message of their own by organizing a march through the warzone from El Cua to San José de Bocay.
“There were about 30 gringos marching through the warzone, saying, ‘We are not going anywhere’,” Takaro remembers. “We all rallied; Linder’s death reinforced the idea that we had to stay and continue the work, continue international pressure to end the war, and continue to witness the injustices.”
Twenty-five years later, Linder’s example continues to inspire solidarity work with Nicaragua—even among Nicaraguans. In the northern mountains of Jinotega and Matagalpa, the “Benjamín Linder” Association of Rural Development Workers (ATDER-BL), continues to install rural electricity and potable water projects in Linder’s honor. In the past two decades, the NGO has installed more than 100 kilometers of electrical lines, expanded rural electrification by 830% and built smaller micro-hydroelectric plants in 30 remote communities are that are off the national power grid. The organization also works on reforestation and conservation projects to protect the watersheds for the hydroelectric plants.
Linder’s legacy also resonates with the next generation— those who were born at the same time he was killed.
“Although we never met Ben Linder, his legacy certainly exceeds him. Visiting the towns of San Jose de Bocay and El Cua 25 years after his death, it is evident that Ben still continues to live on in the heart and soul of these communities,” says Alyssa Brandfass, 27, of San Francisco, California.
Brandfass was one of 27 people who recently traveled up to Jinotega to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Linder’s death. She and her friend, Nina Menconi, 26, are part of the next generation of international-minded foreigners who feel compelled to share their talents with disadvantaged populations in Nicaragua. The two women have started “Project Mango Mundo,” which produces creative media and art projects to raise awareness about Nicaragua, increase socially responsible tourism, volunteerism, and educational and cultural exchange.
“As young women starting community-building projects in Nicaragua, we feel empowered and inspired to bring into our work some of the love and enlightenment that Ben left behind for us all,” Brandfass says.
Linder’s legacy and loss is most felt among those who knew him best. Diana Brooks, a Nicaraguan puppeteer whose family took in Linder when he first moved to Managua in the early 1980s, continues to be an active artist and community organizer with the Sandinista Front.
During last week’s trip to San José de Bocay, Brooks sat down on the ground where her friend was killed and said her final goodbye. “I wanted to have five minutes of contact and say goodbye to him, to tell him to rest because the rest of us will continue the work here,” Brooks said.
For others, however, solidarity work with Nicaragua no longer means being in solidarity with the ruling Sandinista Front.
Veteran public health activist Maria Hamlin, who first moved to Nicaragua in 1968 and worked side by side with the revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s, says the current administration’s restrictions on women’s sexual-reproductive rights makes the born-again Sandinista Front “hard to swallow.”
Others working with health brigades say the Sandinista Ministry of Health has made solidarity work extremely difficult with a series of unclear, seemingly arbitrary and constantly changing rules and regulations. Some NGOs have scaled back their operations in Nicaragua due to difficulties working with the current government.
Indeed, the Sandinista Front of today has divided the old solidarity movement as much as it has divided the country as a whole.
“I would say the solidarity movement with Nicaragua is very divided, just like politics in Nicaragua. Within our own small community, there is a great variety of opinions—some are more Danielista, some are super critical, and some are middle of the road,” says Hall, who has spent more than half her life dedicated to working with the poor of Nicaragua. “I came in solidarity with the Sandinista revolution, and I stayed because of the Nicaraguan people. And I think a lot of us would say that; this is not the same government or party as it was in the 80s.”