A version of this essay appeared first in El Nuevo Diario, 28 April 2007, the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of two Nicaraguans, Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales, and a US citizen, Benjamin Linder, in San José de Bocay, Nicaragua.
From the first moment I was aware of Nicaragua, decades ago, he was in my consciousness, although until much later would I recognize its importance and the repercussions that would result. That day in which Benjamin Linder, a young North American, engineer, clown complete with a big, red nose, makeup and unicycle, died, assassinated in San José de Bocay, Nicaragua, 28 April, 1987.
I didn’t even know that this marvelous young man existed until weeks after his murder, when his parents visited my then-home city, Houston, Texas. His parents narrated to a small group of people, in simple and direct terms, a brief history of Ben’s life in Nicaragua. An engineer by training, he served as a volunteer in sustainable energy projects that brought electricity to remote towns for the first time. Through the efforts of Ben and a small team of Nicaraguan engineers, the town of El Cuá had already been connected, and a second hydroelectric project had begun further down the road, in San José de Bocay. I felt moved when they described his efforts to bring progress to people living under the immense oppression of poverty, ignorance and injustice, and how his life had been cut short when he was targeted by one side fighting against another, in a savage war that consumed innocent and guilty with equal ferocity. He lost his life by a gunshot at short range, after falling wounded from the impact of a mortar; with his death, other brave souls had to resume the work to bring electricity to San José.
For a lot of US citizens such as myself, Nicaragua was a crucible of ideas and ideologies, of strategies of resistance and of combat, of peaceful protests interrupted by the flow of human blood. Ben, and many others on both sides in this decade of conflict, were converted into heroes, their images touted to promote their respective sacred causes. But the story of Ben, who was not a soldier and never intended to die or kill, called to my own, private sentiments. Like another Jew centuries before who turned water to wine, Ben used water to bring light to dark and backward villages. I was enthralled that Ben used his skills to serve others, as much as I was angered and dismayed at the bittersweet results of his efforts.
Although I knew almost nothing of Nicaragua before the moment of Ben’s death, his parents gave me the first step into a world that has occupied the majority of the intervening years. I have accumulated many experiences upon which I can refer to reflect on Ben’s life. Among the many elements of being Nicaraguan I have learned to respect and admire is the great capacity to forgive. It is almost impossible to conceive that so many of those same men and women that I know, could have ordered and executed, or fallen victim to, barbarous actions during a decade of war, just a couple of decades ago. I am astonished each time I contemplate the capacity to heal the old wounds among people who suffered enormous loss, and my astonishment is multiplied when I see people who were once divided by so much loss, join hands in common cause today. Resolving the suffering of campesinos has now become a banner under which all Nicaraguans are more united than ever. The partisan connotations of the work of Ben Linder have faded with time and with the development of an agenda which unites people more than divides them today. Ben, once considered the enemy by some groups here, today unites the great majority with his mission.
Another element of being Nicaraguan that is so attractive is the sense of cause that drove the revolution and continues to motivate so many people toward vocations that compensate the spirit much more than the pocketbook. An entire lifestyle can be noted among Nicaraguans who work in not-for-profit enterprises, teach in classrooms, and serve the medical needs of people, often in abysmal conditions. Many of these people spend uncountable hours in constant struggle to make Nicaragua a decent country for everyone, and in their daily lives can be seen the dignity of every man and woman. Compassion toward oppressed and suffering people is so invariably manifested by Nicaraguans in so many dimensions in their lives, from their job preferences to their treatment of the children begging at streetlights.
Benjamin Linder was not the first, nor will he be the last, person to work selflessly for less fortunate people, but he was the one who awakened in me the idea that I could do something, however small, for others in this country. Ben’s time in Nicaragua, however short, has inspired many people who, like myself, admire his story. Maybe I would never make children laugh as he did, nonetheless, I am grateful for taking the path which began with Ben, accompanying this country and its people all these years. You never knew me, but your brought me here, and I thank you, Ben.