The University of Washington has a long tradition of students and alumni who have bravely traveled to Central America to help improve the lives of ordinary people there. A great many of these have returned to their alma mater to tell the stories of the work they’ve done in that long-troubled region. For Benjamin Linder, such a sweet return was not to be so. In his case, his work in the 1980s on behalf of the people of Nicaragua — then in the thick of the Sandinista revolution — led directly to his assassination, at the tragic age of twenty-seven, by U.S.-supported Contra rebels.
Linder (b. July 7, 1959), a native of California raised in Portland, Oregon, came to Seattle in 1977 to attend the UW, where he received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1983. That summer, Linder moved to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, with the intention of participating in the Sandinista revolution, which he had followed in the news since its beginning in 1979. His aim was to use his engineering skills to help the Sandinista government in its goal of promoting economic self-sufficiency among Nicaragua’s underclass.
The United States federal government under then-president Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, saw the Sandinistas as a “communist threat” much too close to home, and in 1981, the Reagan administration launched a secret program, carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency, to train, arm, and support the Contra rebels, a right-wing paramilitary group that sought to overthrow the Sandinistas.
It was Benjamin Linder’s tragic fate to get caught in the crossfire between the Sandinistas and the Contras. In 1986, he moved from Managua to El Cuá, a village in northern Nicaragua, deep in the country’s war zone. There, he helped form a team that sought to build a hydroelectric dam to bring electricity to the village. It was on the date in focus here that Linder, along with two Nicaraguans, was ambushed by Contras while working on the dam project. The Contras first attacked the three men with hand grenades, then shot Linder in the head at point-blank range. The two Nicaraguans were also shot dead at close range. (Linder may also have been tortured before he was killed, according to a controversial report by a Sandinista military doctor.)
It became quickly evident in the wake of Linder’s death that he was specifically targeted by the Contras in order to intimidate other foreign volunteers who had also come to Nicaragua to aid the Sandinistas. A woman who was kidnapped by the Contras around that time and later escaped claimed to have seen a Contra “hit list” with Linder’s name on it during the time of her capture. Meanwhile, Reagan administration officials, speaking to the press, downplayed the possibility of U.S. government complicity in Linder’s death, denying that he was specifically targeted and arguing that Linder should have known the risks involved in working in a war zone in a volatile foreign country.
In the United States, the incident ignited a national controversy over the use of U.S. taxpayer funds to support the Contras, already a contentious topic in the U.S. news media well before Linder’s death. On the UW Seattle campus, it ignited a series of protests aimed at barring CIA recruiters from operating on campus, including a march through the University District that briefly blockaded the crucial car-traffic intersection of Northeast 45th Street and University Way Northeast. These protests were ultimately unsuccessful since UW President William Gerberding flatly refused all student activist demands to bar the CIA from campus.
During Ben Linder’s time in Seattle, he became well known within the UW community for his outgoing and gregarious personality. He was well skilled in the arts of juggling, unicycling, and clowning, and he could often be seen displaying these talents on the UW campus and elsewhere in the city. By many accounts, he was much more an idealist than an ideologue, and his decision to travel to war-torn Nicaragua was motivated by humanitarian concerns much more than political ones. His death, as tragic as it was, did have the tangible effect of turning U.S. public opinion against the Contra rebels, who were up until that point often lauded in the mainstream U.S. media as “freedom fighters.” There once was talk among a small group of UW student activists about the possibility of renaming the UW’s Engineering Library in his honor, but those efforts never got past the talking stage.
Given the recent historical whitewashing of Ronald Reagan’s political legacy in the wake of his 100th birthday in 2011, such a public monument to Benjamin Linder would serve well as a corrective reminder of the U.S. government’s darker escapades in Central America in the 1980s.
Sources: “Contras kill Portland man,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 29, 1987, p. A1; “Associates call death of engineer a contra warning,” The Seattle Times, April 29, 1987, p. A1; “UW grad killed by Contras,” University of Washington Daily, April 29, 1987, p. 1; Bruce Sherman and Gil Bailey, “Ben Linder: ‘He became an engineer to help 3rd World’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 30, 1987, p. A1; Duff Wilson, “Garage sales and citizen donations helped to finance Linder,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 30, 1987, p. A13; Richard Seven, “Pragmatic engineer working in Nicaragua ‘wasn’t there to die’,” The Seattle Times, April 30, 1987, p. A3; Sally Macdonald, “12 students ask UW to bar CIA recruiters,” The Seattle Times, April 30, 1987, p. A3; Kurt Jensen, “A death in the hills,” University of Washington Daily, April 30, 1987, p. 1; Jeff Bond, “‘We hold the Reagan administration responsible’,” University of Washington Daily, April 30, 1987, p. 1; “‘He did what he thought was necessary’,” University of Washington Daily, April 30, 1987, p. 4; Sally J. Clark, “Benjamin Linder: Politics wasn’t his motivation, he wanted to help,” University of Washington Daily, April 30, 1987, p. 10; Andrew Himes, “Students mourn a death of a friend,” University of Washington Daily, April 30, 1987, p. 10; Evan Callahan, “A different kind of class,” University of Washington Daily, April 30, 1987, p. 11; Andrew Himes, “Gerb rejects STOP’s anti-CIA proposal,” University of Washington Daily, May 1, 1987, p. 3; Stephen Farr and Mark Jewell, “Students march on campus, block traffic in effort to get CIA off campus,” University of Washington Daily, May 5, 1987, p. 1; Joan Kruckewitt, “The Death of Ben Linder: The Story of a North American in Sandinista Nicaragua” (Seven Stories Press, 1999).