Nicanotes: A History of Casa Ben Linder: To Die in Nicaragua

Midge Quandt, Presente!

The Alliance for Global Justice and most especially the Nicaragua Network mourn the death of Midge Quandt who died on March 14 in New Jersey after battling Parkinson’s disease. A scholar-activist, Midge had a Ph.D. in history. She was active in the Princeton-Granada Sister City Project before joining the executive committee of the Nicaragua Network and later the board of the Alliance for Global Justice. She traveled to Nicaragua many times with Nicaragua Network delegations and on her own to do research for the five small books she wrote for the Nicaragua Network, the best known being Unbinding the Ties: The Popular Organizations and the FSLN in Nicaragua published in 1993. She also published articles in our Nicaragua Monitor, in Against the Current and the Monthly Review. Among our Nicanet photos, we find pictures of Midge in 1991 sitting with other activists in Nicaragua working out a new program for the Nicaragua Network, and 18 years later at an AfGJ meeting in Washington, DC. A memorial service for Midge will take place on Sunday, May 27th, in Princeton. The family has kindly asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Alliance for Global Justice at https://afgj.org/. Midge will live in our memories. Our condolences to her husband Richard. Midge Quandt, ¡presente!


Nincanotes : A blog about nicaragua by solidarity activists

A History of Casa Ben Linder:
To Die in Nicaragua

By John Kotula

 

On April 28, 1987 a young American was killed in Nicaragua. His name was Ben Linder and he was twenty-seven years old.

This depiction of Ben Linder’s work in El Cuá, Nicaragua, was painted by Thelma Gómez Flores and Freddy Gaitán Esconcio in 1993. It is on the outside wall of the property now known as the Casa Ben Linder, facing the street. This is a photo of the mural when it was new. It is now quite deteriorated. Alliance for Global Justice’s Artists’ Delegation to Nicaragua in August will have a role in restoring this mural.

Because Ben Linder studied circus arts, he was almost certainly knowledgeable about the archetype of the holy fool. While a fool is someone who behaves in ways that invite ridicule, the holy fool is someone who uses foolish behavior to reveal deeper truths and show a better way. The holy fool has taken many forms in different times and places. In early Christianity fools for Christ, sometimes naked, roamed from town to town, testing the populace’s capacity for compassion. Shakespeare’s plays are full of fools who make kings laugh only to realize mid-guffaw that the laugh is on them. The holy fool is prominent in Native American cultures, tweaking vanity and self-importance at every turn. Circus clowns come on like buffoons, but by the end of the show the audience realizes they are the smartest ones under the big top.

Ben Linder dressed up as a clown, peddled his unicycle, and juggled in the Nicaraguan countryside while a US-funded war was raging. He was assassinated by Contra troops. The term “assassinated” is the correct one to use. The Contras were funded, trained, and supervised by the CIA in order to overthrow the Sandinista revolution. It strains credibility to think that these mercenaries would have killed a well-known United States citizen on their own. You can bet someone gave the nod to take out Ben Linder.

It is apparent that Linder was also a hell of an engineer, since in the middle of a war, he managed to get a dam constructed that brought electricity to El Cuá, the village where he had settled. However, it was his clowning that caught the imagination of people in Nicaragua and the US. He is depicted on murals across Nicaragua and he is always shown on his unicycle, made up, red nose in place, objects flying from his hands into the air. He performed for children during vaccination campaigns, distracting them, making them laugh, filling them with wonder while they waited for their drops and injections. However, as a holy fool, his true audience was the US and the world. He modeled that the US could relate to Nicaragua in a better way. It was possible to be loving, helpful, collaborative, and delightful instead of hateful, destructive, imperialistic and brutal. This example was more threatening and enraging to then president Ronald Reagan and his cronies than building dams.

The CIA set the policy during the Contra war of killing non-combatants who were working to make Nicaragua a better place. They killed teachers, literacy workers, farmers, medical personnel, and a holy fool: a sweet, decent, American kid.

Thelma Gómez Flores and Freddy Gaitán Esconcio also painted this mural in which it appears that Ben, as a carefree child, dove of peace in hand, is already being stalked by his tragic future. The red, white, and blue dragon is both alluring and frightening. It is a powerful image of innocence destroyed by US aggression.

The Invasion of Grenada

It is worth spending some time on the invasion of Grenada, because it never hurts to remind ourselves of our history of imperialism and because it is directly related to the founding of Casa Ben Linder. (This section draws heavily on the article “30 years on: The legacy of Reagan’s invasion of Grenada” by Stephen Kinzer that appeared in Aljazeera America on October 25, 2013.)

If you were to make a list of all the stupid, pointless military adventures the US has undertaken it would be a very long list. Let’s cut it down to just the last 50 years, still a very long list. In order of stupidity, especially if you gave bonus points for goofiness, I think Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 would make the top ten. First off Grenada is tiny. The whole island could fit within the city limits of Detroit. Back then the population was about 90,000, which means two-thirds of the whole country could have attended a Patriot’s game in Gillette Stadium. Not that they would have wanted to, because having been part of The British Commonwealth their games were cricket and the other kind of football, the “futbol” kind. Size of Detroit, 90,000 cricket payers, out in the middle of the Caribbean somewhere, so the main point is that there is no way in hell that this islet could be a threat to the mighty US of A, which is exactly what the United Nations told Reagan when it passed a resolution by a vote of 108 to 9 condemning the invasion as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

At the time, in Grenada, things were unsettled to say the least. Blood was being spilled. The leftist president had been deposed and executed by the military for not being radical enough. There were Cubans on the ground who may have been advisors or soldiers or both. There was also a medical school attended by about 600 would be doctors from the States. They hadn’t been touched, but Reagan said he feared, “a hostage situation.” However, he had made no effort to negotiate for their safety. Instead he sent in the army, the navy, and the marines. Apparently, every branch of the service wanted in on the action. They launched a kind of Keystone Kops invasion. Reportedly, “Communication was so confused that one officer had to call his base in North Carolina from a pay phone to request air cover. After an American bomb was mistakenly dropped on a mental hospital, dazed patients wandered aimlessly…” The “…cobbled-together force… led to everything from shouting matches between officers to the discovery that each service used different radio frequencies and could not reach the others.”

It was farcical, but people died: 19 U.S. Forces, 25 Cubans, 45 Grenadian forces, and at least 24 civilians. 18 of the civilians died in the bombing the Grenadian mental hospital.

Of course, it only took the US Forces a day or two to take control of the island. Very quickly, it was all over, but the strutting, back slapping, chest bumping, and bragging. “Our days of weakness are over! Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall,” Reagan said. (In case you were wondering where Trump picked up his bombastic tirades, look no further.) The Gipper gave out a total of 8,612 medals. This is like if Tom Brady led the Patriots to a victory over your local Pop Warner team and then went on Fox Sports to brag about it. “Yeah. That kid Bobby, their quarterback, wanted to try on my Super Bowl ring, but I said, ‘ ‘fraid not, punk. No Super Bowl rings for losers.’ ” (Wait! How did the Patriots creep back into this essay?)

These portraits of Gandhi, Jesus, and Martin Luther King are from a series depicting heroes of pacifism and charity, and were painted by a Dutch artist, Diederik Grootjans.
Source: https://diederikgrootjans.exto.nl/kunstwerken/13861185_fiets.html

Casa Ben Linder

The justifications given publicly for the invasion of Grenada were so farfetched that people sought to understand what the real agenda was. Some figured it was solely based on Reagan’s desire to have a military victory to tout after a long series of setbacks. However, another idea that was widely discussed was that Grenada was a dressed rehearsal for an invasion of Nicaragua. One group that was justifiably concerned with this possibility was the community of Americans living in Nicaragua who supported the revolution and apposed US aggression.

During this era, there was a regular protest in front of the US Embassy on Thursday mornings. Ex-pats, mainly people from the US, came to show their support for the fledgling government. There was also a social aspect to these gatherings; an opportunity to have a weekly check-in with friends, exchange news, and welcome recent arrivals. It was among these people that the rumor of an imminent invasion took root and led to discussions of how to prepare for it. The idea emerged to buy a piece of property that could function as a safe house for the community. This was seen as a more conscionable option than taking refuge in the US Embassy. Many in this community had church affiliations. They referred to themselves as the Ecumenical Committee and in 1987 they bought the property in Barrio Monseñor Lezcano and named it for the young man who had recently been assassinated by Contras in Matagalpa.

The need to take refuge from invading troops never materialized. However, Casa Ben Linder began a long history as a gathering place and resource center for people actively supporting the revolution. After the US-rigged elections in 1990 that removed the Sandinistas from the presidency, Casa Ben Linder hosted a long-running seminar/discussion group that met in the same Thursday morning time slot as had the embassy protests. These meetings took place weekly for 25 years. The property also became the home of many solidarity and Nicaraguan organizations perhaps most prominently, “…FUNDECI, which was founded by Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, a Maryknoll priest, who was Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister in the 1980s and who later served as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations.”

FUNDECI (Foundation for Integral Community Development), which still exists in a different form, was a NGO with a far reaching mission and efforts to help the poor of Nicaragua on many fronts. Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, who died in 2017, in addition to being a liberation theologist, revolutionary, and statesman, was a great art lover. During his time at Casa Ben Linder he commissioned murals for the property that are of historic and cultural significance.

Over the years, Casa Ben Linder never quite managed to support itself. It entered a slow spiral of deterioration in which repairs were deferred leaving the property even less able to generate income. Eventually, despite everyone’s best efforts, it ceased to function. At the beginning of 2018, The Ecumenical Committee donated the property to Jubilee House Community, a non-profit organization from North Carolina which has a long history with the house and runs large health, education, and agriculture projects in Nicaragua centered in Ciudad Sandino.

Casa Ben Linder has an important group of works in incised concrete by Orlando Sobalvarro. Sobalvarro’s abstraction differed greatly from much of the work done during the revolution which tended to realism and primitivism. The artist, who died in 2009, was a spokesman for the compatibility of abstract art and revolution. He saw the idea that abstract art was difficult to understand as a result of capitalism that should be remedied as any form of illiteracy would be. “It is important that the concepts of abstraction be understood by the general public, since the same pictorial qualities apply to painting as to political propaganda.”

New Life for Casa Ben Linder

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Casa Ben Linder to meet its new caretakers and get my first look at the place. I was shown around by Becca Mohally Renk and Claudia Saballos. It seems that the creation of titles is not an important part of how Jubilee House Community does business, but Becca appears to have broad responsibility for the organization and Claudia’s efforts are more focused on education and the management of Casa Ben Linder.

At the moment the place is run down, but it is easy to see its potential and work has already begun. Inside the front gate, there is a pretty garden area surrounded by murals. At the rear of the property there is a very large covered patio that is in good shape. It is already an excellent spot for meetings, conferences, workshops or parties. In the middle there is a ramshackle building that is none the less quite attractive and inviting. It is here that renovation has begun with the goal of creating five guest rooms with private baths and a museum of documents and artifacts related to the house. The accommodations are targeted to solidarity activists visiting Managua who would like to stay someplace with a sense of history. While there is no shortage of nice hostels and boutique hotels in Managua, I think the new management is on to something that could be quite appealing and provide a source of income for other programing. For readers of NicaNotes, I urge you to monitor the progress and make a visit the next time you are in town.

I spent most of my time with Becca and Claudia talking about the murals. This essay is illustrated with photos and comments about these lovely and important works of art. Part of the plans for the future of Casa Ben Linder is to restore or repaint the murals. It is also a goal to have a program to create new works of art and to decorate the guest accommodations with original paintings by Nicaraguan artists. I was impressed by the energy, vision, and dedication that Becca and Claudia are bringing to their stewardship of this project. By the time I left, I had committed to a donation earmarked to help in the restoring the murals. Here is a link if you, too, would like to lend a hand to bringing new life to Casa Ben Linder.


BRIEFS

  • US Ambassador Laura Dogu, addressing a conference about Nicaragua’s economic prospects out to 2030, adopted a more critical tone than normal. “If the road to 2030 begins today, we first have to understand where Nicaragua is today,” she said. She called Nicaragua’s situation “uncertain” and unloaded a list of grievances the US has ranging from “protecting” Supreme Electoral Council President Roberto Rivas’ immunity in the face of US corruption sanctions, to Nicaragua’s recognition of Georgian breakaway states South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Dogu claimed, against evidence to the contrary, that Nicaraguans are losing faith in the government because of lack of democracy and that investors are losing confidence. Dogu warned that the NICA Act could pass the Senate in reaction to Nicaragua’s “lack of democracy” and close relations with Russia and Venezuela, and said that Nicaragua could run afoul US sanctions because Albanisa, the company through which Venezuela poverty reduction aid is channeled, is partially owned by the Venezuela national oil company PDVSA. (El Nuevo Diario, Mar. 15)
  • From March 19 through May 1, the government will award 2,500 new property titles to heads of household: 1,307 women and 1,193 men, according to Attorney General Hernán Estrada. These 2,500 new property titles legitimize the right to property of these families and strengthen the rule of law in the country. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 19)
  • The Nicaragua Central Bank (BCN) reported that remittances to the country surpassed US$1.3 billion dollars last year, 10% above the amount registered in 2016. The United States, Costa Rica, Spain and Panama were the main sources of these remittances. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 16)
  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network published its 2018 World Happiness Report yesterday, placing Nicaragua in position 41 in its ranking. The World Happiness Report measures welfare in 156 nations around the world based on information pertaining to gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy, social liberty, health, and the support of public institutions among other aspects. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 15)
  • Vice President Rosario Murillo announced that a Map of Violence against Women will be presented detailing acts such as serious injuries, rapes and other crimes against women. “Gender violence is a reality that we must face in a constructive manner, not by victimizing ourselves but rather by taking on a leading role in all the educational work that needs to be done to prepare ourselves to be better people and to create a better world,” Murillo stated. This Map of Violence will be used to work along with Nicaraguan families in the prevention of violence against women, children and adolescents. (Nicaragua News, Mar. 14)
  • The government of Costa Rica announced on Mar. 13 that the Nicaraguan government had paid the US$378,890 assigned to it by the World Court for environmental damages to Costa Rica during 2015 dredging operations at the mouth of the Rio San Juan. Costa Rica had asked the court for US$6.7 million. (El Nuevo Diario, Mar. 13)