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Ben Linder

Benjamin Ernest Linder (July 7, 1959April 28, 1987), born in California, was a young American engineer who was killed in an ambush on April 28, 1987, by a group of US-funded Contras while working on a small hydroelectric dam that was to bring electricity and running water to a village in the middle of Nicaragua's war zone. Linder's death made front-page headlines around the world and polarized opinion in the United States.

Linder graduated from the University of Washington in 1983 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He left his Oregon home that summer and moved to Managua. 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 hydroplant to bring electricity to the town.

Linder and two Nicaraguans -- Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales -- were killed in the 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 was first wounded by a grenade, then shot at point-blank range in the head. The two Nicaraguans were also murdered at close range, Rosales by a stab wound in the heart.

Linder's electrification project was typical of Contra targets. Near El Cuá, the agricultural cooperative of El Cedro had been attacked three times resulting in a number of deaths. On March 19, 1987, four coop members tried to fend off a Contra attack, providing cover for residents as they escaped. Two of them were killed, one a close friend of Linder's. The health clinic at the coop, its food supply center, and a house were burned to the ground.

The ambush was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Contras to undermine support for the Sandinistas by destroying any benefits the revolution brought to poor Nicaraguans, and to demonstrate the cost to the people if they continued to support their government.

Linder's death was bitterly debated in the United States, both in the media and in Congress. Opponents of Washington's policy in Nicaragua called him a "national hero" and a martyr of the left, while supporters of Washington's policy justified him as a "legitimate target" and asked, "was he a Communist?"

US embassy officials in Nicaragua admitted that they not only did not investigate the incident, but had no interest in doing so.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was quoted in The New York Times as saying that US citizens working in Nicaragua "put themselves in harm's way". Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, one of the Contras' foremost champions, said Linder simply should have known better than to be in a combat zone.

During a congressional hearing in May 1987, Contra apologists on the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee launched personal attacks on Linder's family and other witnesses who came to testify on behalf of Linder and his work. The Village Voice reported one exchange between Linder's mother Elizabeth, who had just given testimony to her son's work and motivations, and a Republican member of the House, Connie Mack of Florida. Said Mack:

I guess what really has me upset is that I just cannot understand how you can use grief that I know you feel, use it to politicize this situation. Or to allow yourself to be used to politicize this situation.... I guess the reason I find this so difficult is that I don't want to be tough on you, but I really feel you have asked for it.

CBS News correspondent Dan Rather had a different view of Linder:

Benjamin Linder was no revolutionary firebrand, spewing rhetoric and itching to carry a rifle through the jungles of Central America. He was a slight, soft-spoken, thoughtful young man. When, at 23, he left the comfort and security of the United States for Nicaragua, he wasn't exactly sure what he would find... But he wanted to see Nicaragua first-hand, and so he headed off, armed with a new degree in engineering, and the energy and ideals of youth... This wasn't just another death in a war that has claimed thousands of Nicaraguans. This was an American who was killed with weapons paid for with American tax dollars. The bitter irony of Benjamin Linder's death is that he went to Nicaragua to build-up what his own country's dollars paid to destroy -- and ended up a victim of the destruction... The loss of Benjamin Linder is more than fodder in an angry political debate. It is the loss of something that seems rare these days: a man with the courage to put his back behind his beliefs. It would have been very easy for this bright, young man to follow the path to a good job and a comfortable salary. Instead, he chose to follow the lead of his conscience.

The murder of Linder and the growing distaste in the US for the covert war in Nicaragua finally led to the US Congress prohibiting military aid to the Contras. But the Contra attacks, combined with a tight economic embargo on the impoverished country, fatally undermined confidence in the Sandinista government and it was voted out of power in February 1990.

Ben Linder rode a unicycle and entertained Nicaraguan children as a clown.

In July 1995, 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, located and interviewed one of the men who killed Ben Linder. The story became the basis for an article in The New Yorker and was later expanded into a book, The Death of Ben Linder.

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