A Personal Mission
BILL DONAHUE - Special Writer, The Oregonian
(Copyright (c) The Oregonian 1992)
Power to the people was Ben Linder 's goal as he paced beside a stream in the remote Nicaraguan village of San Jose de Bocay on the morning of April 28, 1987.
Linder -- a slightly built, bespectacled, 27-year-old engineer from Portland -- was in Bocay because he believed the Sandinistas who had taken power in 1979 to be true populists, champions of peasants.
And he was planning to build a small concrete dam that would deliver electricity to the farming village that lacked modern rice threshers, corn mills, even electric lights.
He was absorbed in his work. He'd toted an AK-47 assault rifle for protection, but had set it by the stream as he took notes on stream flows. Probably he did not see the soldiers lurking in the hilly forest above him.
The first grenade blast belted Linder, knocking him over. Gunfire ripped out of the lush forest of Bocay. Linder's two Nicaraguan helpers went down seconds later. The U.S.-financed Contras -- loyalists to ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza -- had killed three people. Ben Linder had become the first U.S. citizen to die in the Contra-Sandinista war.
And the dream he'd held for four years appeared dead as well. The hydroelectric dam in San Jose de Bocay seemed doomed.
Today, nearly five years later, Ben's father, Dr. David Linder, hunches in the dining room of his big Northwest Portland home, looking a bit weary. A stately man whose sparse white hair sprouts wildly from his scalp, he recently has had a bit of an eyeball surgically removed. He mentions this casually as his wife -- small, gray-haired Elizabeth Linder -- steps toward the room's phone, carrying papers. He grabs a stack of papers himself and begins sorting through it.
The Linders have a meeting this afternoon with their children, John, 37, and Miriam, 35, to prepare for an April 24 memorial in Portland to mark the fifth anniversary of their kinsman's death. They will craft plans to bring political novelist Barbara Kingsolver to speak at the event and will line up jugglers to perform in the spirit of Ben Linder , a part-time circus clown who loved to do shows for kids.
The elder Linders will speak, as always, of the killing in Bocay as a murder spurred by the United States government, a political tragedy they must try to right.
For five years they've been waging a daily struggle to give meaning to Ben Linder 's truncated life and to the slogan his Nicaraguan co-workers scrawled in wet cement by the Bocay stream: "Aqui murio Benjamin Linder. Su obra continuara." Ben Linder died here. His work will continue.
Though the family's commitment to progressive political causes long preceded Ben's death, the Linders will work today as a still-stunned and outraged family. They shun fax machines and the slick machinations of professional politics, exuding instead a homegrown tenacity, a sort of relentless dedication, that makes conservative critics snarl and fellow leftist activists gush.
"The Linder family could easily have taken Ben's death as justification for bitterness," says Susan Bloom, a Portland printer and political activist. "Instead, they coalesced to do wonderful things in Ben's memory."
David and Elizabeth Linder have done the vast majority of the work: They've visited more than 100 North American cities to celebrate their son's hopeful visions for Nicaragua. They've appeared on numerous TV and radio talk shows. They've compiled a mailing list of 10,000 supporters and have sent out two newsletters. They've traveled to Nicaragua five times.
The Linders also filed a $50-million wrongful-death lawsuit against the Contra leadership in a federal district court in Miami, alleging that former Contra leader Enrique Bermudez ordered their son's murder. The suit was dismissed in 1989, but the Linders now are appealing the dismissal. The purpose of the suit, they say, is not so much to get money (which has little chance of success) as it is to set a legal precedent.
Through their activities, the Linders have raised more than $400,000, mostly in small amounts -- in checks for $10, $20, even one for $5.73 -- from people who have heard them speak.
Nearly all the money and the Linders' vast commitment has been directed toward one goal -- El Central Mini-hidroelectrica Benjamin Linder, a hydroelectric plant Nicaraguans are building in Bocay.
The dam, which began as a notion in Ben Linder 's idealistic mind, today is a looming wall of rock and rebar and cement nestled into a rocky slope in San Jose de Bocay. The 16-foot-tall structure -- to be completed when the Linders raise the final $20,000, probably late this year -- will feed water into a half-mile pipe toward a nearly finished 230-kilowatt generating plant.
When completed, the dam and hydro plant will serve a region blasted by the war. Bocay, about 40 miles from Nicaragua's Honduran border, was a funnel for migrating Contras. It was a tattered bull's-eye in the war, from 1979 until the Sandinistas surrendered control in a national election to the centrist National Opposition Union in 1989.
"The other day," Ben Linder once wrote his sister from Nicaragua, "I saw the mother of five kids using her feet to wash corn in a stream, the same feet which walk around the kitchen where the pig, the dog and the kids all sleep. Hours a day women carry firewood and water." Miriam Linder speculates that such sights of poverty made her brother stay in Nicaragua from 1982 to his death. Certainly, they made him ask questions: "Why are there so few oxen?" he wrote. "Were people so much cheaper than animals?"
"The tuna fish," Elizabeth Linder assures a visitor in her sunlit kitchen, "is cruelty-free. No dolphins."
It is lunchtime on another spring day. As they prepare food, the elder Linders move about the kitchen in slow consort, like two turtles that have been smoothed by the same stream. Once they sit, they soon turn to their son's death.
"Ben's murder," says David Linder, "personalized history for us. It brought home for us indelibly how cruel and evil the U.S.-sponsored Contra war was as it killed the people of Nicaragua, especially its finest." By war's end, according to U.S. sources, an estimated 30,000 people on had died.
Longtime activists, the Linders view authority with skepticism. They have been allied with such pacifist causes as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the anti-war movement of the '60s, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Coalition Against U.S. Military Intervention in the Middle East. On the local level, they helped found a cooperatively owned grocery, Food Front; they've boycotted grapes and protested construction of the Mount Hood Expressway. They have never believed in electoral politics, arguing that social change must come from grassroots activism, outside the political mainstream.
But the killing of their youngest child crystalized a new anger, a new certainty, in the Linders. Just days after the death, a reporter asked David Linder, "Who killed Ben ?" Linder stood before a ring of microphones and intoned: "Someone who was paid by someone who was paid by someone, and down the line to the president of the United States."
The Linders, then newly retired -- he is a pathologist, she worked as a Spanish translator -- were ripe to make their son's work their own.
Today, over lunch, David Linder says: "We just couldn't sit back and let that be the end of Ben."
Their paper-scattered house attests to the continuing struggle. In one corner sits a soon-to-be-sorted trash bag full of poems sent to them by people honoring their son. Cluttered desks serve as work stations in their renewed lives of activism: One Elizabeth Linder uses to write letters to Ben's admirers; one her husband uses to correspond with the engineer heading the construction in Bocay; yet another is stacked high with photos of Nicaragua.
The Linders each spend perhaps two hours a day at these work stations. They blend politics into their calm lives of taking walks and reading and visiting with their 2-year-old granddaughter. They pace themselves, mindful of David Linder's two recent heart attacks.
Despite their solidarity on keeping alive Ben's cause, the Linders exude distinct political personae.
"David," says Portland Central American activist Nancy Webster, "is quite candid; he can talk about politics in very human terms. And Elizabeth is very compassionate. In doing political work, she is always concerned that people get the credit they deserve."
They embrace their differences. They like to joke about how they at times have opposing views; they listen to one another without interrupting. But they disagree at times, too, as they do now, when the phone rings in the midst of lunch.
"I better take it," says Elizabeth Linder. "I think it's about the memorial." As she pushes away from the table, her husband looks chagrined. "She always takes these calls during meals," he confides. "It's one of those issues that has never been resolved."
Later, he shoves a rumpled tweed hat on his head and starts down the steep walkway to the street. "I guess one reason we're doing this," he says, his nasal voice filled with the flat tones of his native Brooklyn, "is that young people today don't have any role models. I think it's important that we keep Ben's memory alive."
In the mailbox by the street is a small miracle -- a check for $2,500, made out to the Ben Linder Memorial Fund. David Linder clutches it and beams.
To build a mini-hydro plant in rural Nicaragua, you need parts from faraway places -- governors from Sweden, say, and generators from the U.S. You have to jury-rig things. Most stores don't carry parts big enough; most government suppliers only sell bolts in quantities too vast.
Ben Linder wrote frustrated letters to the States about machine parts that would "fit one day and not the next."
And other concerns intruded: He was breaking up with a distant girlfriend. And he was watching families lose children to the war.
But Linder's commitment sustained him. One night he wrote to a friend, "I came back to my room, took a large slug of rum, lay back in my hammock and wondered about my role on this earth. I finally decided that the hydro plant is what I'm here for, like it or not, and that I just have to keep fighting."
David Linder's belief in projects such as the dam in Bocay has deep roots. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in working-class Brooklyn -- a place where socialists were commonplace and anti-capitalist playwright George Bernard Shaw was viewed as a hero. Linder carried his ideals with him when he entered World War II as a U.S. Army medic. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was shot in the elbow.
Elizabeth Linder, too, learned harsh lessons during the war. She and her Jewish family were forced to flee her native Czechoslovakia in 1938, ahead of Adolf Hitler's invasion. She grew up in Mexico.
John Linder says now that his mother's glimpse of the Holocaust made her a decided foe of racism. "She's always bristled when she's heard words like `colored' used to describe people," he says. "I don't think she got that from hanging around liberals."
But the elder Linders are not apt to speak so grandly of their past. David Linder will mention that his wartime wound made him a committed pacifist. But he and his wife are intensely self-effacing; they shirk from expounding on how their scars shaped them.
"Why do I believe in peace, justice, freedom?" Elizabeth Linder asks with a shrug. "That's unanswerable."
The Linders' convictions, it seems, took root in their guts, beneath words. But they did not turn to activism, really, until the 1960s, when the Linders' San Francisco neighborhood began to foment with political activity.
David Linder began protesting the Vietnam War then. Elizabeth Linder lobbied to desegregate the city's schools, and they hosted weekly dinners for the local chapter of SNCC, which aimed to improve living conditions for San Francisco's black community. Stokely Carmichael, SNCC's firebrand leader, once visited the Linders' home.
Carmichael's visit, John Linder says today, was something of a fluke. His parents, he insists, were not "hard-core radicals." They were not the type to get arrested or to taunt police into spraying tear gas.
But their activism left a strong impression on their children, all of whom embraced progressive world views. Ben Linder , of course, went to Nicaragua. Miriam Linder practiced environmentalism once she got a degree in geography; she shied away from oil-exploration work. John Linder leaped ardently into activism, joining the Social Workers' Party at age 14, and began pulling his family deeper into politics.
After the family moved to Portland in 1970, Elizabeth Linder allied with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom at the urging of her oldest child. David Linder helped found Portland's sister-city relationship with Corinto, Nicaragua; he's joined such groups as the Veterans Peace Action Team since his retirement.
The Linders' commitment to left-leaning causes stirs scorn among many conservatives. "Why raise money," asks Sue Gallagher, president of Oregon Eagle Forum, "for a hydroelectric project in a communist country?"
Scott Lively, spokesman for the Oregon Citizens' Alliance, echoes that view. "The Linders are dealing with a tough issue, death. But they could have spent their time better if they addressed problems here at home, like street gangs and crack babies. They're typical of Portland-area socialists: They've latched onto a South American sic insurgency like it's a utopian ideal."
The Linders ignore such criticism. They continue to meet as a family, talking and talking on matters such as Ben's memorial until they reach consensus. It is a slow, sometimes inefficient process -- once they deliberated four months to produce an eight-page newsletter -- but it is democratic.
And they keep going: The hydro plant is now just a few parts away from being done. The workers merely need some electric cables, some piping, a few control valves, a governor and a small shipment of motors.
"My favorite time," Ben Linder wrote his sister from San Jose de Bocay just 11 days before he was killed, "is when I'm walking alone along a stream, looking at the stream for its own sheer beauty, looking at it for generating electricity, or just walking along a stream, scrambling over rocks. The other day I found a lovely white orchid with a white-and-mustard center. Tucked among the rocks, it clung on."
Elizabeth Linder glances down at her kitchen table, and shifts her coffee cup over the smooth wood. She's talking now about how the world has changed since her son's death and her words are bleak. The Contras, she claims, are re-arming in Nicaragua; near Bocay, they're carrying guns, threatening to take small towns by force.
And the U.S. government, she charges, remains "brutal. Since Ben's death, we've seen then continue aid to the Contras. We've seen them blast Iraq into the Third World. And we've realized that they'd a kill a Ben Linder again."
Elizabeth Linder is close to tears. She seems not to want to keep going over her son's death. But packed in her slight, aging frame, she also seems possessed of a fierce stamina. She is silent a moment and then, with renewed calm, begins recounting the tale of their most recent trip to Nicaragua.
"David and I stayed in the city of Matagalpa for a while then," she says, "After a few days, we set off for San Jose de Bocay."
A friend drove them over the dirt roads. The Linders shouted over the rattling noise of pebbles splashing up against the Jeep's doors. They drove for five hours, finally arriving for the first time in the town where their son was killed. They were driven up a steep, newly built road to the dam.
The Linders lurched up to the top of the hill and took in a sight at once ordinary and wonderful: Twenty people shoveling stone and chiseling the foundations for a dam.
The couple picked their way over the steep, rocky slopes and chatted with the workers and technicians. They thrilled at the expertise of the Nicaraguan welders and machinists. They snapped photos.
When they left after two hours, they were elated. Somehow now they knew it would happen. Central Mini-hidroelectrica Benjamin Linder would be finished. They would raise the money for all the odd little machine parts.
Soon the turbines would spin, and the tiny town of San Jose de Bocay would fill with light.
2 Photos by Associated Press. Photo. Oregonian File Photo. Photo by MARV BONDAROWICZ of The Oregonian staff. 4 Color Photos by MARV BONDAROWICZ of The Oregonian staff. Graphic - 4 Charts. DAVID LINDER, ELISABETH LINDER, JOHN LINDER and MIRIAM LINDER. Brief profiles.