Thirty years ago, 27-year-old Portland native Ben Linder was killed in Nicaragua by rebel fighters who had been trained and armed by the U.S. government. Linder had been living in Nicaragua for over three years, working for the National Energy Institute. Before he died, he had been building a small hydroelectric dam to provide energy to a remote village in the center of the country.
“He wanted to make the world a better place,” says Linder’s older brother, John Linder, who works as a fifth-grade teacher in Portland.
Ben had studied mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, where he also taught himself to juggle and ride a unicycle. (At one point, in his 20s, he even rode his unicycle from the Canadian border down to Santa Barbara.)
“He was very focused on how his engineering would improve the world,” John says. He was also inspired by the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979, and the efforts of the new Sandinista government to make the ownership of both agricultural land and energy available to the public. Linder went to Nicaragua in 1983, not long after Contra forces armed and trained by the CIA launched an offensive against the Sandinista government.
Ben was also inspired by the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979, and the efforts of the new Sandinista government to make the ownership of both agricultural land and energy available to the public. He arrived in Nicaragua in 1983, not long after Contra forces armed and trained by the CIA launched an offensive against the Sandinista government.
Ben spent his first two years working primarily in the capitol, Managua. In addition to his engineering work, he used his skills as a juggler to perform with the National Circus of Nicaragua and commuted to work in Managua on his unicycle.
John visited Ben in Nicaragua in 1984 and says it was inspiring to see how his younger brother had grown into such a well-loved and respected part of the community.
“Everybody from the receptionist … to his coworkers, to the family he lived with seemed to appreciate the kind of joyful, humble, positive person that he was,” John says.
Ben eventually pushed the National Energy Institute to allow him to work on small-scale rural energy projects, like the hydroelectric dam where he was eventually killed.
John says his brother was not naive about the risks he was taking. “Sure, he could have picked up and come back to the U.S., but then they would have been left with the war and without the potential electricity that he was working to provide,” he says.
On April 28, 1987, Ben and two Nicaraguans he was working with were killed in a Contra ambush at the construction site for the dam. His family landed in Nicaragua two days after Ben was killed. They drove three hours into the countryside where they were joined by thousands of people who marched with them in the funeral parade. The president of the country, Daniel Ortega, spoke at the funeral, along with Ben’s parents and siblings.
John remembers that many of the Nicaraguan women who marched alongside him were wearing flowers pinned to their garments representing their sons who had been killed in the civil war.
Still, John says that while his brother’s death was a direct result of U.S. government policy in Central America, it does not change how he feels about his country. “The Contra war was overwhelmingly unpopular from beginning to end. … I don’t hold the American people responsible.”
To this day, an association of rural development workers continues the work of Ben Linder building small hydro plants and solar panels to provide electricity and clean water to rural Nicaragua.
“I am impressed by his wisdom,” John says. “He set out to build sustainable energy. And he did it in the middle of a war. … Ben was really on the cutting edge of the kind of change that has to happen.”
You can listen to the whole interview with John Linder through the audio player at the stop of this story.