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Ben Linder

Benjamin Ernest Linder (July 7, 1959April 28, 1987), born in California, was a young American engineer who was working on a small hydroelectric dam in rural northern Nicaragua when he was killed by anti-government Contra rebels. Coming at a time when U.S. support for the Contras was already highly controversial, Linder's death made front-page headlines around the world and further polarized opinion in the United States.



While in College at the University of Washington, Linder enjoyed juggling and was often seen around Seattle riding a 5-to-6-foot tall unicycle. He graduated in 1983, with a degree in mechanical engineering. He left his Oregon home that summer and moved to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, bringing his unicycle along with him.

Like hundreds of other young Americans (and others) at the time, Linder felt inspired by the 1979 Sandinista revolution, and wanted to support its efforts to improve the lives of the country's poorest people. The Reagan administration, however, saw the Sandinistas as a beachhead of Soviet Communism in the Western Hemisphere, and was determined to cripple the revolution. Beginning in 1981, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly trained, armed and supplied thousands of Contra rebels. A major element of the Contras' strategy was to launch attacks on rural schools, health clinics and power stations — the very things that most exemplified the improvements that had been brought about by the revolution.

In 1986, Linder moved from Managua to El Cuá, a village in the Nicaraguan war zone, where he helped form a team to build a hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to the town. While living in El Cuá, he participated in vaccination campaigns, using his talents as a clown, juggler, and unicyclist to entertain the local children, for whom he expressed great affection and concern.

On 28 April 1987, Linder and two Nicaraguans were killed in a Contra ambush while working at the construction site for a new dam for the nearby village of San José de Bocay. The autopsy showed that Linder had been wounded by a grenade, then shot at point-blank range in the head. The two Nicaraguans — Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales — were also killed at close range. He was postumously awarded the Courage of Conscience award September 26, 1992. [1]


Linder's death quickly inflamed the already-polarized debate inside the United States, with opponents of U.S. policy decrying the use of taxpayers' dollars to finance the killing of an American citizen as well as thousands of Nicaraguan civilians.

The administration fought back, with White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater quoted in The New York Times as saying that U.S. citizens working in Nicaragua had "put themselves in harm's way". Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, an ardent proponent of the Contra War, echoed that view, saying that Linder should have known better than to be in a combat zone.

Linder's mother Elizabeth, in Nicaragua for her son's funeral, said, "My son was brutally murdered for bringing electricity to a few poor people in northern Nicaragua. He was murdered because he had a dream and because he had the courage to make that dream come true. ... Ben told me the first year that he was here, and this is a quote, 'It's a wonderful feeling to work in a country where the government's first concern is for its people, for all of its people.' "

During a Congressional hearing in May 1987, some defenders of U.S. policy in Nicaragua responded, launching personal attacks on Linder's family and other witnesses. The Village Voice reported one exchange between Republican Congressman Connie Mack of Florida and Elizabeth Linder, who had just given emotional testimony about her son's work and motivations. Mack accused Mrs. Linder of using her grief "to politicize this situation", adding, "I don't want to be tough on you, but I really feel you have asked for it."

The death of Linder, coming as Congressional hearings investigated the Iran-Contra Affair, fueled the debate in the U.S. over the covert war in Nicaragua. The next year, Congress refused to renew aid to the Contras. But the civil war, conscription into the army, the collapse of the economy, and the curtailment of civil liberties in the mid-1980s all combined to cause the landslide defeat of the FSLN government in February 1990 elections.

In July 1996, an American journalist named Paul Berman wrote an article in the The New Yorker ("In search of Ben Linder's killers" The New Yorker. Sep 23, 1996. Vol. 72, Iss. 28; p. 58), which featured an interview with a man who claimed to have killed Linder. Linder's parents and their lawyers publicly denounced the article and disputed the veracity of the man Berman interviewed. In 2001 Joan Kruckewitt, an American journalist who lived in Nicaragua from 1983 to 1991 and covered the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras for ABC Radio wrote a book The Death of Ben Linder (Seven Stories Press 2001) giving a more sympathetic portrait of Linder's life, work, and death.

The song "Fragile" on Sting's 1987 album, ...Nothing Like the Sun, is a tribute to Ben Linder. The 1990 book Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver is dedicated to his memory.

See also

  • Witness for Peace
  • Bill Stewart, an ABC reporter killed along with his interpreter a decade earlier in Nicaragua.
  • Brian Willson, an American injured by a Naval Munitions train while protesting US arms shipments to Central America.

External links

Categories: American activists | Sandinista National Liberation Front | Nicaraguan Contras | University of Washington alumni | Assassinated activists | 1959 births | 1987 deaths | American terrorism victims | Terrorism deaths in Nicaragua