Linder continues to inspire solidarity with Nicaragua

Only today, most internationalists make a distinction between supporting Nicaragua and supporting the Sandinista Front. Second in a two-part series on Ben Linder’s legacy

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.”

Second graders' drawings in San Jose de Bocay honor Linder’s memory (photo / Tim Rogers)

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.”

 Continued Solidarity

Ben Linder’s name still shows on a rusty sign outside the hydroelectric plant named in his honor in El Cua (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.

Last Goodbye: Diana Brooks at the site where Linder was killed (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.”

The younger generation is still learning of Linder's legacy (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.” 

  • Paul Baker Hernandez

    Hey Everyone – just blasted off this comment to Tim:

    “Thanks, Tim.

    Good stuff. Although I’d have preferred the last line to be that, whatever about woolly liberal reservations, the current FSLN government has all these programs – you know, free this and that, Hambre cero, Usura cero, etc.; mostly focussed on women; has how many – 6 is it? women ministers, has more than 50% women delegates to Nat Ass, and so on. [Not to mention 60+% support of ‘ordinary’ Nicaraguans – not in original comment to Time]. Meantime the US? UK?
    I thought it was a perfect – sad – example of our gringo disconnect that, while travelling to honor Ben’s work, fundamentally environmental, we closed the windows of the bus, shutting out the vibrant Nicaraguan colors, smells and sounds – and ran the air conditioning! It wasn’t even that hot.

  • P

    I realize the mods will probably block this post, but just in case…
    As someone who traveled throughout the south of Nicaragua throughout the mid to late 1980s as a free man, not led by Sandinista minders let me tell you that of the 100s of people I saw buried, the last one I ever think of or regret is the “Sandalista” Ben Linder.
    First of all, let’s remember that “cooperatives” were just places the FSLN redistributed to their lackeys livestock and resources stolen by force, many times after murdering whole families and burning houses from free campesinos. They were not some kind of la-de-da shangrila where everybody pooled resources, held hands and sang songs about Daniel, Humberto and Lenin Cerna.
    Second, the circumstances of Linder’s death are SUPER murky. Humberto Ortega and Lenin Cerna (head of Gestapo) never released any records at all from the war and have blocked all attempts at setting up South Africa style “Truth Commissions”. It is SUPER possible that Linder a naive patsy, and tempting FSLN propaganda target, was taken out by FSLN/Lenin Cerna special operations troops. Whether or not it was done directly or after dressing up as Contras will probably never be known. Certainly they had a history of impersonating Commandos, for example when they went “recruiting” for the contras in 1987 and rounded up 180 campesinos and murdered them. It is generally acknowledged that Linder was in uniform and autopsy revealed grenade shrapnel. Grenades were very available to EPS from their $1 Bil/year in soviet aid. Less so for the Contras, who would generally not use them when ambushing troops, instead saving them frankly for tossing in rivers and rounding up hundreds of fish for campesino cookouts. Weird but true.
    Remember also that in the 1990 elections, elections in which results were skewed for FSLN due to FSLN thugs standing outside polling places, and refusal to allow 500,000 refugees to vote, Jinotega went by 55% to 37% margin for UNO/Contra candidate. Close by provinces of Boaco and Chontales went by 70%. So with war fresh in their minds, the people of Nicaragua showed their disgust for FSLN mass murder, genocide and repression. Linder was a moronic patsy and poster child for that genocide and his death is at the very bottom of a list of ~100,000 Nicaraguan deaths to mourn from that war.

    • Miguel

      P: I am Nicaraguan, and you certainly don’t speak for me or anyone I know. Go spread your propaganda elsewhere. Nicaragua doesn’t need your delusional kind in our country.

  • NicaCat56

    Hey, Miguel: I’m from Nicaragua, too, and I am 100% in agreement with what P said. I also believe, as do many others, that Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was taken out by the Sandinistas.