Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Death-- and Life-- of Ben Linder

Twenty-Two years ago today, a twenty-seven-year-old American guy named Ben Linder was murdered by Contras, Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, who were armed and trained by the United States. His death deeply affected me then, and haunts me today.

In July, 1979, about a month after I finished high school, a group of left-leaning revolutionaries called the Sandinistas, overthrew Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. At first, they were a mixed group, spanning the spectrum of center to left. Over the next couple of years, things changed. First, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. Secondly, the Sandinistas began a turn to the left, and began accepting aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union.

The United States began supporting dissident elements in Nicaragua. Some were legitimate dissidents, such as former Sandinista commander Eden "Commandante Cero" Pastora. Most, however, were violent thugs. With US training and weaponry, they began a campaign or terror and murder in Nicaragua.

Here in the United States, a political fight began. Memories of the harrowing US experience in Vietnam were still fresh in the minds of most Americans. Congress was hesitant to get involved in another war. Reagan used his popularity to push through various forms of aid to the Contras.

The Sandinistas, in the meantime, were debating furiously. A lot of scholars feel that there was a group within the Sandinistas who thought that the world's balance of power had shifted to the Soviet Union. Others within the party felt that the US should not be antagonized.

Looking back, a giant "chicken and egg" situation was developing. The US viewed any help from the Soviet Union and Cuba as justification for arming the contras. The Sandinista directorate viewed the arming of the contras as rationale for accepting aid from the Soviet Union and Cuba. Through 1983 and 1984, tensions escalated between the US and Nicaragua.

During this period, I changed majors from Biology to Political Science; I'd discovered I had a passion for the subject. And I began closely watching the situation in Nicaragua, as were some of my friends.

As tensions escalated, with Nicaragua declaring a state of emergency, tens of thousands of people were murdered by the contras. If you ever want to read a great account of the activities of the contras, read journalist Christopher Dickey's book "With the Contras." The contras, who Reagan called "Freedom Fighters," engaged in an orgy of murder, rape and destruction of Nicaragua's pitifully small infrastructure. Teachers and schools were particular targets. The Nicaraguan government received large amounts of military aid from the East bloc, including Hind helicopter gunships and SAM's, surface to air missles.

In barroom conversations, fellow leftist students and I discussed the situation. A couple of us decided; if the US invaded, we would go to Nicaragua and join the Nicaraguan army, in the spirit of the Lincoln Brigade of Spain. Looking back, I wonder if I would actually have done it. Was it drunken youthful bravado? I think that I was young enough and cocky enough to have done it. And I was, I think, willing to give my life to that cause.

Nicaragua held an election that was declared, by most of the world, to be relatively fair. Still, the US escalated the war. The harbor of Managua was mined; infamously, the CIA produced a "how-to" manual on terror for the contras and distributed it. And most infamously, Oliver North and a handful of other right-wing whackjobs began conducting their own foreign policy from the basement of the White House, sending covert military aid to the contras, despite a Congressional prohibition against it, financing it through the sales of missles to Iran.

I ended up finishing my bachelor's, and then my master's in Political Science. One of the papers I did in getting my Master's was on the Sandinista revolution and the contra war.

In the early eighties, a young guy from Oregon, who was trained as an engineer, Ben Linder, decided to go to Nicaragua, not to fight, as I'd thought I might, but to help with small hydroelectricity projects, to bring electricity and lights to Nicaraguan villages.

Linder had orginally intended to stay for only a short time in Nicaragua, but as he saw the good things the Sandinistas were doing, such as literacy campaigns, he stayed on. In Joan Kruckewitt's excellent book, The Death of Ben Linder, she recounts Linder's struggle to do what he'd gone to Nicaragua to do, fighting the weather, Nicaraguan government bureacracy, the huge amount of illiteracy in Nicaraguan society-- and sometimes his own loneliness.

As time went on, he became closer to the Nicaraguan people-- and to the war. In early 1987, Linder began working on a hydroelectric project in El Cua, a small village that was dangerously near the war zone. He began carrying a rifle, and had Nicaraguan soldiers to protect him.

On April 28, 1987, Linder began his day's work on the dam project. Shortly thereafter, nearby contras launched an attack. Contras began firing rifles and throwing hand grenades, wounding Ben, and killing two of the soldiers assigned to protect him and the project. As he lay wounded, a contra walked up with an American-issued assault weapon and blew his head off.

The contras, knowing that the shots would be heard in the nearby town, and that Nicaraguan soldiers would be arriving shortly, stripped Linder of his wallet, camera and watch and left.

Between the Iran-Contra affair and Ben Linder's murder, the United States public began losing its tolerance for supporting the war in Nicaragua. In 1990, elections were held in Nicaragua, and opposition leader Violetta Chamorro, won. She was the widow of Pedro Chamorra, who had owned Nicaragua's top newspaper, La Prensa, and was a vocal opponent of the Somoza regime. His murder, in 1978, by Somoza's thugs, had been one of the things that had galvanized popular support behind the Sandinistas. She had been on "Los Doce", the politically mixed group that had nominally held power immediately after the revolution. She had later been, as the head of La Prensa, critical of the Sandinistas. Her credentials as an opposition leader were unimpeachable. With her election, and Reagan leaving office, there was no more rationale for the war.

Talking to a latino co-worker, he said that the Nicaraguan people had not so much voted for Chamorro, they had voted for an end to the war.

In the end, the Contras murdered tens of thousands of Nicaraguans. Most estimates are around 70,000 dead, mostly civilians, in a population of about 3 million. And a handful of Westerners, including Ben Linder.

Since the war ended, the Sandinistas, who are now a political party, have alternated power with moderates and conservatives. Currently, Daniel Ortega, who led the Sandinista revolutionaries to power in 1979, is President.

When I heard of Ben Linder's death, I felt survivor's guilt. In the end, I hadn't gone to Nicaragua. They didn't need guys with degrees in Political Science. They needed people who were engineers, soldiers, mechanics, electricians, doctors-- and teachers. When I returned to school in 1989 to learn Spanish and get my teaching certification, spending some time eventually in Nicaragua was in the back of my mind.

I admire Ben Linder. He was a hero. He was a guy who was about my age who had the guts to do what he did; to live for-- and die for-- his convictions. I haven't forgotten him. I feel like I owe him. Perhaps I'll still spend some time in now-peaceful, but still desperately poor Nicaragua in the not-too-distant future, volunteering medical services after I finish my nursing degree.

Oh, and what about that hydroelectric project? One of Ben Linder's friends, Rebecca Leaf, outraged over Ben's death, continued to work on the project. On April 28, 1994, the seventh anniversary of Ben Linder's death, the hydroelectric project was completed and began providing electricity and light to the people of El Cua, which it continues to do to this day.


SkylersDad said...

I didn't know about this story, he was an amazing and brave man.

dmarks said...

" One of the papers I did in getting my Master's was on the Sandinista revolution and the contra war."

I wrote a college paper back then, too, but not for a Master's thesis. I did read the book "With the Contras" while writing it.

Churlita said...

I was very politically active back then and remember reading and being sickened by this incident and the tons of others like it.

Distributorcap said...

that was a terrific post - and a sad story

our involvement in ANY govt has proven to be nothing short of disastrous =- Guatemala in 1954, Iran, Lebanon etc..

if it doesnt fit american business interests....

all of reagan and his band of merry men should have been convicted for what they did with Iran-Contra

bubbles said...

Very informative and interesting post, JY.