Of the countless bullets fired during Nicaragua’s brutal counterrevolutionary war in the 1980s, few shots have continued to resonate as loudly as the one that ended the young life of US citizen Benjamin Linder on April 28, 1987.
Twenty five years after contra insurgents killed Mr. Linder as he worked at a small hydroelectric plant for the Sandinista government, his life continues to reverberate. His death was front page news, and further inflamed the US debate over support for the contras, coming just months after the Iran-Contra scandal had erupted. Linder's angry friends and family complained that the US had paid for the bullet that killed him, while officials in the Reagan Administration said he should have known better than to go to a war zone.
The political passions that surrounded Sandinista Nicaragua, with US supporters viewing that socialist government as an agent of positive change and its opponents decrying it as a communist beachhead in Central America, have largely cooled today.
But the Oregonian continues to inspire young North Americans who want to use their skills to promote change in this Central American country.
“Although we never met Ben Linder, his legacy certainly exceeds him,” says Alyssa Brandfass, a young woman from San Francisco who was part of a commemorative trek in the mountains to honor Linder on the 25th anniversary of the fatal ambush that further divided international opinion over US involvement in Nicaragua.
The two women say his legacy inspires their own work, “Project Mango Mundo,” which produces media and art projects to raise awareness about Nicaragua, increase socially responsible tourism, and promote educational and cultural exchange.
She’s not alone. In the northern mountains of Jinotega and Matagalpa, the “Benjamín Linder” Association of Rural Development Workers (ATDER-BL), continues to install rural electricity and improve access to clear water in Linder’s honor. In the past two decades, the non-governmental organization has installed more than 60 miles of electrical lines, expanded rural electrification by 830 percent, and built smaller micro-hydroelectric plants in 30 remote communities 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 death remains controversial. Even some in the solidarity movement claim Linder, a 27-year-old engineer and clown, was “pushing the envelope” by toting an AK-47 into the mountains accompanied by half a dozen Sandinista militiamen. Others, however, claim he would have been crazy to go unarmed, given the threat of contra ambush.
Linder’s death — he was shot in the head execution-style after being injured by a grenade hurled by a contra strike force — forced hundreds of young North Americans in Nicaragua’s “internationalist” movement to question their commitment to the Sandinista Revolution and realize the grim reality that being gringo didn’t necessarily protect them from the the war around them.
“It forced us to open our eyes and see that the contra would kill US citizens. I think we all had the notion that the contra would not kill US citizens because the US government was financing them and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” says Lillian Hall, an American Sandinista supporter who came to Nicaragua in the mid-80s, 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.”
Several days after Linder’s funeral in Matagalpa, his parents met with Hall and a small group of other internationalists living in Managua. They wanted to know how their son’s death would affect everyone else’s support for the Sandinistas.
“Ben’s parents told us, ‘If you are scared and want to go home, we totally understand that,’” remembers Ms. 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 US because they are scared.”
Still, Linder’s death frightened 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.
Yankees, go home?
Today, Linder’s legacy and loss is most felt among those who knew him best, including dozens of North Americans who stayed in Nicaragua to continue their work even after the revolution ended when the Sandinista Front was voted out of office in 1990.
Now that Sandinista President Daniel Ortega is back in power, many have mixed feelings about politics in Nicaragua.
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 access to abortion makes the born-again Sandinista Front “hard to swallow.”
Others working with health brigades say the Sandinista Ministry of Health has made international assistance 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 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 (supporters of President Daniel Ortega), some are super critical, and some are middle of the road,” says Hall, who has spent more than half her life 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.”
A version of this story ran on the author's site, www.nicaraguadispatch.com