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Outraged and Organized: U.S. Peace Activists in Nicaragua

Elissa Denniston
History 486B
Professor Nancy Appelbaum
May 11th, 2007

On July 19, 1979, Sandinista revolutionaries entered Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and declared victory over the oppressive Somoza dynasty which had ruled the nation for over three decades. The radical shift of power within this Central American nation had a profound effect both on the lives of Nicaraguans and the climate of international politics, particularly within the Cold War context. Throughout the next ten years, social upheaval and economic crisis within Nicaragua led to the influx of thousands of volunteers from both the United States and the rest of the world who worked on development projects and, during the Contra War, projects promoting peace. Those who traveled from the United States to Nicaragua during the 1980s had assorted backgrounds: men, women, clergy, lay persons, recent college graduates, and retirees were among the diverse people who went to Nicaragua to help combat the poverty in the developing nation. These U.S. peace activists often met with Sandinista leaders and worked side by side with them on economic reform programs and social reform programs.

The central question which this paper will address is why the peace activists choose the Sandinista cause as their own. What would cause U.S. peace activists to not only go against the official policy of their own government, but risk their own lives working in a war torn nation? It cannot be explained simply by peace activists identifying with the leftist, idealistic goals of the Sandinista regime. The motivation of the U.S. peace activists was stronger than common ideology; rather, peace activists were so disgusted by the atrocities committed by Contra rebels that an overwhelming sense of moral outrage united them and prompted them to support the Sandinistas. Moral outrage, in this particular situation, can be defined as the explicit violation of normative standards of morality. U.S. volunteers were also outraged because they knew the Reagan administration funded the Contras. Thus, many U.S. volunteers felt they needed to take responsibility and counter their own government’s misdeeds in Nicaragua. Furthermore, the volunteers became polarized when they saw the negative portrayals of the Sandinista cause in the U.S. media; they felt a duty to help change public opinion in the United States about the nature of the Sandinista regime. Often, this led to volunteers overlooking substantial human rights violations committed by the Sandinista regime, including their imposed limits on freedom of speech and the harsh treatment of the indigenous population. Thus, the feelings of moral outrage tended to polarize activists and made them more likely to sympathize and work with the Sandinistas during the Contra War.

I. Origins and Establishment of the U.S. peace movement in Nicaragua

In order to analyze why U.S. peace activists took up the Sandinista cause, it is first necessary to understand how this peace movement for Nicaragua came into existence. The U.S. peace movement in Nicaragua can be traced to U.S. missionary involvement and the spread of liberation theology in the 1960s. Liberation theology emphasized the liberation of the oppressed; priests, nuns and lay Catholics who embraced liberation theology believed that that God was working to liberate humanity from every injustice, be it spiritual, cultural, economic or political.. Liberation theologists believed that God was struggling to free the oppressed and thus, individuals should do the same in order to do God’s will. [1] Liberation theology was also influenced by the reforms proposed by the Second Vatican Counsel, which were progressive and liberal. [2] Originating in Latin America, liberation theology spread to the United States; one group, the Maryknoll Order, was inspired to change the nature of their missions to Central American nations. Nuns and affiliated lay workers from this order were sent to Nicaragua and other Central and South American nations and helped liberate the poor from their poverty. [3]

Liberation theology became particularly meaningful both in Latin American and the United States within the context of the 1979 Sandinista revolution. Anastasio Somoza and his brutal National Guard controlled all aspects of Nicaraguan life for over thirty years. The regime was oppressive; all economic growth benefited Somozo and his family while the vast majority of the nation was landless and in the depths of poverty. Still, Somoza maintained close ties with the United States particularly with President Nixon. Within Nicaragua opposition to Somoza was growing; the FSLN, a guerilla group that promised democracy and economic reforms to benefit the people, maintained a constant presence in the nation from the 1960s onward. After President Jimmy Carter withdrew support for Somoza on account of human rights abuses and FSLN leaders managed to seize the National Legislative Palace, Somoza’s National Guard took extremely brutal action, randomly massacring thousands of Nicaraguans. The massacre finalized the illegitimacy of the Somoza regime and in the summer of the following year, the FSLN launched its final offensive, driving Somoza from the nation. [4]

As the Sandinistas consolidated power, they spread their idealistic message throughout the nation. Sandinista leaders emphasized their ideology as having three components or “three legs of a stool.” [5] The first “leg” was establishing a political democracy with free and open elections. The second “leg” of the Sandinista ideology was setting up a participatory democracy where Nicaraguans from all walks of life would be encouraged to participate in government programs. Finally, the last “leg” was economic democracy; the Sandinistas hoped to establish a system of redistributing wealth to create economic equality for Nicaragua. [6] Many U.S. volunteers approved of the Sandinistas goals for Nicaragua and found them to be similar to the democratic values of the United States. These proposed reforms for Nicaraguan society by the newly installed Sandinista regime seemed to promote equality and liberty for all Nicaraguan citizens; however, as internal strife plagued the nation, the Sandinistas did not always promote these values. For example, the Sandinistas heavily censored opposition newspapers. [7] In addition, conflict broke out between Sandinistas and the Miskito Indians on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and many claim the Sandinistas committed human rights abuses against this Indian group. [8] This demonstrated how the practices of the Sandinistas did not always coincide with their ideology.

Although the FSLN achieved victory in Nicaragua in 1979, their struggle for sovereignty continued throughout the 1980s. This was mostly the result of the Contras, militants opposed to the Sandinistas, who were set up and backed by the United States government, first covertly, then overtly. Over $1 billion U.S. dollars went into maintaining the Contra organization by 1988; some of this aid was approved by Congress yet $3.8 million was given through an illegal diversion of profits from covert arms sales to Iran. [9] The Contras were trained in psychological warfare; they used constant intimidation in order to wear down the resolve of the Nicaraguans and the Sandinista government. This intimidation unfortunately included arbitrary violence against civilians as well as sabotage of already delicate infrastructure in order to dismantle means of production. The tactics of the Contras, along with other problems with the government system, hindered the ability of the Sandinistas to develop their nation and bring the masses out of poverty.

The specific set of circumstance surrounding the formation of the group, Witness for Peace, lends credit to the idea that moral indignation was a key source of motivation for the organization of peace activist groups and the support of the Sandinista regime. In 1983, a group from North Carolina, led by an ex-Maryknoll nun who worked with the poor in Nicaragua in the 1960s, traveled to Nicaragua on a “fact-finding” tour. [10] The group traveled to a village near the Honduran border and the saw the destruction caused by Contra attacks. When the group of Americans was in the village the attacks stopped. The Contras would not risk killing Americans because the U.S. government funded their operations. The concept of placing U.S. volunteers in war zones to prevent attacks by Contras quickly fermented and the group brought their message back to the United States: the Sandinista government reflected the will of the people and the Contras engaged in senseless violence against Nicaraguan citizens. A second trip to the war zones in Nicaragua took place a few months later consisting of 153 people from forty states. [11] The group held a poignant prayer vigil with a community shattered by Contra murders and kidnapping; they later went to the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and showed him “pieces of shrapnel from U.S.-manufactured mortar shells they found in bombed villages.” [12] The lack of response by the ambassador showed the volunteers that the Reagan administration’s position on the Contras would not be swayed. This also angered the volunteers; even physical evidence of U.S. backed Contra attacks on villages did not persuade the administration to stop funding. The policy of the Reagan administration which ignored testimony of human rights abuses by the Contras violated the ethical values of Witness for Peace volunteers. The group was thus motivated to try and correct what they saw as inexcusable wrongdoing by their government.

The 153 volunteers returned home and shared their experiences through their local churches and the media. Their group officially took the name Witness for Peace, and a national steering committee was formed quickly thereafter. They worked to raise money throughout the country in order to send long term and short term delegations who would non-violently protest the U.S.-backed Contras and support the Sandinista government. [13] The organization grew and, as one scholar reflects, “those living in the war zone of Nicaragua developed in-depth knowledge of the situation, while others learned as much as they could in the course of two weeks.” [14] This was their basic plan for spreading knowledge and peace activism both within Nicaragua and the United States. Witness for Peace continued to grow with hundreds of new members joining throughout the mid 1980s. The group focused on Nicaragua because, although other bloody conflicts existed at this time period, they felt this particular conflict warranted immediate action. Witness for Peace delegates saw first hand the destruction cause by the Contras who were backed by the United States. The group felt a responsibility to stop the funding of the Contras and this often meant siding with the Sandinistas.

The story of one individual U.S. volunteer also shows the process of politicization; Ben Linder became involved in Nicaragua as a young college graduate with strong leftist ideals and a keen sense of adventure. Linder was raised in a progressive family that fostered his sense of social justice and his political ideas. His family was Jewish and his mother had moved to Mexico to escape the Nazis in Czechoslovakia, yet the family was not very religious. Still, Ben identified with his Jewish heritage and tradition; as one friend put it “for Ben, it’s who he was…being Jewish is caring about others who are fighting against oppression. I think even more so in his family, because his mother had so recently come over from Europe.” [15] He became a vegetarian in college to protest the killing of animals and attended protests against nuclear power as an undergraduate. Thus, Linder’s values as Jew and as a liberal influenced his decision to move to Nicaragua.

Faced with the decision of how to pursue his career after college, Joan Kruckewitt, Linder’s biographer, explains, “Ben wanted no part of any U.S. government-affiliated program with conservative Ronald Reagan in office.” [16] Instead, after two initial visits to Nicaragua, he moved there to apply for a job as an engineer in the state-owned energy company. He wished to use his skills as a mechanical engineer to work on development projects within the nation. Kruckewitt’s book details the challenges Linder faced: adjusting to the different language and culture, quelling the fears for his safety by friends and family, dealing with a lack of resources and organization within the Instituto Nacional de Energía as well as the persistent threat of Contra attacks while he worked on an alternative energy project in a remote village in the North plagued by violence. Linder consistently stood up to these challenges, in part due to his moral indignation resulting from witnessing the Contra atrocities and thus believing in the Sandinista cause as representative to the needs of the Nicaraguan people.

II. Witnessing War

Many U.S. volunteers who went to Nicaragua in the 1980s witnessed first hand the death and destruction caused by Contra rebels. Personal stories told by Nicaraguan villagers deeply affected the U.S. volunteers and motivated them to take action, both by helping the Sandinistas and by vocally opposing Reagan’s policies aiding the Contras. The first hand testimony of these “witnesses” provides insight into the realities of life within the conflict zone as well as insight into the source of moral outrage that unified the volunteers and cause them to support the Sandinista regime.

Volunteers in Nicaragua often wrote in diaries or letters back to the United States detailing their experiences. One such volunteer was Rebecca Gordon, a bookkeeper and feminist activist who published a lesbian literary magazine. She compiled all the letters she wrote to her partner Jan Adams during her time as a delegate for Witness for Peace. She decided to join the group and travel to Nicaragua because she felt the dire situation required “something beyond my ordinary level of political involvement.” [17] In one early letter she wrote, “Ocotal is not far from here…yesterday at 4:00 in the morning, something like 500 contra attacked the city. They were repulsed by the local militia, but not without casualties.” [18] Gordon’s testimony about the horrors of war continues throughout the rest of her memoir. She also reflects upon her unique experience as a member for Witness for Peace; she is a Jewish lesbian and did not fit the organizations predominately Christian mold. Despite her unique background, she connects with her fellow members as a result of terror of daily life in Jalapa and Matagalpa, two towns seriously affected by Contra violence. Her experience increased her level of political commitment to the Nicaraguan revolution. She also expressed her dedication to the ideals of Witness for Peace, sharing a common feeling with her fellow members that “if U.S. money is buying the supplies, the training, and even the soldiers to wage war against these people, then people from the U.S. ought to be there to share the effects of that war.” [19] Gordon’s writing solidly conveys the common motivation of U.S peace activists in Nicaragua; they felt an obligation to experience the war caused by their government and work to stop the progress of the war, by being politically active back in the United States. This expression of solidarity with the people of Nicaragua is largely due in part to witnessing the hardships of Nicaraguan daily life.

Another Witness for Peace delegate, James McGinnis, also wrote about his experience in Nicaragua and the personal narratives he heard from Nicaraguans affected by war. McGinnis, like Gordon, traveled to the town of Jalapa where he heard countless stories of mothers losing their sons in the war. He reflected upon hearing the accounts of two mothers who, “spoke passionately and simply about the ordinariness of their sons: ‘They were not great leaders, just young persons who could no longer stand the poverty and repression under Somoza.” [20] He also visited the Jalapa hospital where he met a young man wounded the day before in a battle with Contra forces. Finally, McGinnis told of the economic effects of the Contra strategy. He assessed the situation as follows, “These attacks focus not on military targets but on economic destruction…only several weeks earlier, an agricultural cooperative no far from Jalapa had been the target-fourteen persons killed, homes destroyed, and crops burned.” [21] Although McGinnis had a strong background in peace activism, he was the director of the Institute for Peace and Justice in St. Louis, MO, the experience of witnessing the destruction and hearing the tragic stories from Nicaraguans affected how he presented his experience back in the United States.

Christian Smith, in his text documenting the U.S. Central American peace movement, also compiled specific testimony from Witness for Peace volunteers about the poverty, death and destruction in Nicaragua. Smith includes a section of a letter written to him by a sixty-nine year old delegate who stated, “it is not easy to feel patriotic when one goes to a cemetery to view with survivors the mass graves of 34 victims of a U.S. mine explosion and of 80 children strafed on a airstrip runway as they were about to be evacuated.” [22] U.S. policy, which resulted in the death of Nicaraguan citizens, was viewed as immoral by the peace activists and caused them to side with the Sandinistas. Even if volunteers were against Reagan prior to traveling to Nicaragua, their political views were polarized even further as a result of feelings of disgust at the policies of the U.S. The peace activists vehemently opposed U.S. funding of the Contras; therefore, they sided with the Sandinistas, not because the volunteers were Marxists or communists, but because it was the logical alternative in such a contentious situation to express their views.

Ben Linder, in his letters back to his family and friends, also expressed his repugnance at U.S. policy of supporting terrorist Contras. As he worked on hydroplant that would bring electricity to a small village in Northern Nicaragua, he expressed a constant fear of attack by Contras, because they targeted utilities and other sources of infrastructure. Linder learned about the history of one village, El Cedro, which had an agricultural cooperative and had survived three Contra ambushes resulting in dozens of deaths, kidnappings, and the effects of the destruction of property, including the burning of all the town’s houses, the health center, the warehouse and both chapels. Linder visited the village in order to scout out a new site for another hydroplant that would bring electricity to the region and saw first hand the destruction of the Contra attacks both the physical damage and the emotional damage on the villagers. [23] It was experiences like these that shaped Ben Linder’s political views and actions throughout his four years working to help promote economic development in Nicaragua.

III A Polarizing Effect: Supporting Sandinistas and Discrediting Reagan

Volunteers from the U.S. in Nicaragua experienced a common feeling after seeing the effects of the Contra War on the people of Nicaragua; the tactics used by the Contras unequivocally violated normative standards of morality. Smith analyzes this phenomenon, writing, “Many social movements represent exactly this kind of action where people’s sense of what is right and just is so seriously violated that they feel compelled … to organize to set things right.” [24] Combined with the known fact that the Contras were organized by the CIA and the U.S. tax dollars were being used to arm and fund the organization, this situation gravely distressed Witness for Peace volunteers and prompted them to take action; they focused much of their energy on spreading their message throughout the United States when returning from Nicaragua and forming a strong political opposition to the Reagan administration. As one scholar of the peace movement, Clare Weber writes, “The fact that many WFP activists were motivated by moral outrage rather than political ideology made it harder from them to be dismissed by political representatives and the main stream media as ‘communists.’” [25] The use of the “communist” label in the United States was very strategic; it vilified the Sandinistas and undermined the legitimacy of their government. This label also simplified the complex issues that overwhelmed the nation and clouded the actual problems that existed in Nicaragua such as vast poverty.

U.S. peace activists who sided with the Sandinistas clearly risked being labeled Marxists, communists or Soviet sympathizers by the Reagan administration. These labels evoked a specific stigma in the Cold War context; communism was seen as the antithesis of the ideals of American democracy. Communist sympathizers were essentially seen as being against freedom and self-determination, ideals held in high esteem by the American public. Historically in the United States, those branded “communists” faced immeasurable hardships that were capable of ruining lives. This was seen specifically with the Red Scare and McCarthy eras, but the persecution of communist sympathizers persisted through the end of the Cold War, which included the time of conflict in Nicaragua.

It was hard to label Witness for Peace volunteers as communists because it was a faith-based group and the majority of the members were white, educated and upper-middle class and did not appear to be communists or Soviet sympathizers. Due to the fact that Witness for Peace consisted of many religious people, it was not logical that they would be communists; Soviet style communism vehemently opposed organized religion. Thus, evading these labels, the group sought to spread their message throughout mainstream channels in the United States, speaking at places of worship and schools as well as using media such as newspapers, television and radio to tell the horrific stories of the Contra War.

Witness for Peace, along with other activist groups and individual volunteers, was driven to create a political opposition because of the conflicting image of the Sandinista government portrayed by the Reagan administration in the media. Smith writes on how the Reagan administration conveyed an image of Central America within the “Soviet-aggression frame” [26] In order to convince the American public that supporting the Contras was sound policy for national security, the Reagan administration sought to equate the Sandinistas with the Soviet government to play on fears of Soviet military aggression towards the United States. The logic of Reagan and his political advisors was that if the Sandinistas were the puppets for the Soviets, then the United States would be in danger of an attack from Nicaragua because it was near to the United States geographically. Hence, it followed that the United States should support the Contras who could overthrow the Sandinistas and consequently stop the spread of communism and the possibility of an attack by the Soviets on the United States.

U.S. peace activist disagreed with this line of reasoning by the Reagan administration. When these volunteers traveled to Nicaragua, they did not see a Soviet military presence which posed a threat to the United States. Instead, they saw a grassroots effort to combat poverty and uplift the poor. They also saw that effort being hindered by the Contra rebel. In response to the “Soviet Aggression” line of reasoning by the Reagan administration, which they believed was an oversimplification of the situation in Nicaragua, U.S. peace activists framed their own image of Central America. In one such image, peace activists used the emotional representation of women and children killed by U.S. armed Contras to show that U.S. policy was inconsistent with intrinsic American values such as showing the utmost respect for human life. Christian Smith labeled this image as the “wayward America frame.” [27] Using this line of argument, U.S. peace activists sought to lobby for a congressional ban on giving funds to the Contras. [28]

Witness for Peace used different strategies to catch media attention back in the United States. The groups’ mission was dramatic; church-going Americans traveled to Nicaraguan war zones where they were in danger of being killed. After returning to the United States, the delegates often used their local newspapers to spread their message of the immorality of Contra guerrilla tactic and similarly, the immorality of Reagan’s foreign policy in Nicaragua. Eventually, Witness for Peace “became accepted by many U.S. politicians and journalists as a reliable source of information on the war in Nicaragua.” [29] Witness for Peace delegates consistently traveled to Nicaragua and thus could relay their experiences to the general public; it directly contradicted the continuous sound-bites of the Reagan administration.

Witness for Peace also combined with other Central American peace activist groups to get their message out to the American public through the national media. For example, in December of 1986, the Nicaragua Network, a solidarity group based in Washington D.C., took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times. Witness for Peace was one of the thirteen organizations that sanctioned the message of the ad which read: “We’ve seen this before, last time it was called Vietnam.” [30] Clearly, U.S. peace activists used the historical memory of the Vietnam War and the emotional response which it invoked. The advertisement continued, reading,

The Reagan Administration has deceived us about its unjust and illegal war against Nicaragua… this war has caused the deaths of more than 13,000 Nicaraguans…this policy is incompatible with peace, and with the fundamental sense of decency and democracy by which most Americans guide their lives. [31]

These peace activists were undeniably using what Smith dubbed, the wayward America frame. By juxtaposing American decency with the death of thousands caused by a deceitful president, the peace activists sought to shift the public’s thinking about foreign policy. The advertisement urged the public to learn the truth and then take action to stop Reagan’s policy supporting the Contras. Ads such as this one show that the translation of moral outrage into political action played on the emotional aspects of the war as well as the recent historical memory of Vietnam in order to change U.S. policy.

Witness for Peace also created its own advertisements to raise awareness about the war in Nicaragua. One such example was placed in the New York Times on March 12th 1986. This advertisement did not ask for donations, it simply outlined specific Contra atrocities contrasting them with a quote by Secretary of State George Shultz. Shultz stated that freedom fighters, such as the Contras, did not slaughter school children. The advertisement contrasted this statement with a report from an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Missouri who collected eyewitness testimony involving the massacre of school children by the Contras. [32] Using gruesome testimony of killings done by the Contras using a bayonet, Witness for Peace aimed to evoke feelings of horror in the general public which would result in sympathizing with the people of Nicaragua as well as taking a stance against the Reagan administration for support the Contras. Again, Witness for Peace used the “wayward America” frame of Central America; by calling attention to the fundamentally immorality of the Contra tactics, the group intended to show that the U.S. should stop funding the Contras because the rebels severely violated human rights.

It was easy for U.S. volunteers to decry the massive amount of death and destruction caused by the Contras; many had witnessed the atrocities fist hand. Yet many volunteers had become so focused on stopping U.S. aid to Contras that they often overlooked the negative aspects of the Sandinista regime. For example, in the memoirs of James McGinnis and Rebecca Gordon, two Witness for Peace volunteers, there exists no mention of the censorship practiced by the Sandinista government in the 1980s nor the violent conflicts that took place in the early 1980s between the Sandinista army and the Miskito Indian populations on the Atlantic coast. Many volunteers felt they could not afford to be critical of the regime because the regime was consistently under attack, with actual battle raging in the countryside and battles being waged in the public dialogue through the U.S. and international media. Another interpretation of this phenomenon is more basic; the more the Reagan administration maligned the Sandinista regime, the more U.S peace activists embraced the regime, mainly because it was the only alternative to the persistent, indiscriminate violence practiced by the Contras. Consequently, one of the limitations of political activism motivated by morality in a dichotomous situation such as Nicaragua is that it fails to leave any room for self-reflexivity or moderate reforms.

Although the goal of many peace activist groups in the 1980s was to stop U.S. imperialism in the region, these organizations had to narrow their focus to stopping U.S. aid to Contras. Witness for Peace worked around the clock in the months leading up to a vote on Contra aid in Congress in 1986 by contacting legislators and inundating the media with stories of the atrocities in Nicaragua. By focusing on a smaller problem within a broader issue, Witness for Peace and other activist groups could use their resources most effectively because their narrow goal was attainable; however, this trade-off failed to change the big picture. As Smith writes, “[They] might succeed in ending Contra aid for the time being but fail in changing the underlying policy paradigm that had generated one hundred years of military aid… CIA-sponsored coup d’etats, [and] support of exploitative Central America oligarchies.” [33] Evidently, U.S. support of Contra rebels, despite their brutal and devastating tactics, fit into the over-arching framework of U.S. interventionist policy under the guise of fighting communism. Thus, even though peace activists were united to stop the funding of Contras because of their violated ethical standards, their organized political opposition, although influential to the American public, could not reverse the long-standing tradition of the United States intervening in the domestic dispute of other nations.

Ben Linder, like the volunteers from Witness for Peace, became more political throughout his four years in Nicaragua due to the massive amounts of tragedy he witnessed as a result of the Contra war. Joan Krukewitt’s book about Linder includes detailed information about the progression of Linder’s views; however, due to the political repercussions after his death, her writing is slanted in Linder’s favor. Still, she traces his transformation carefully; she shows that when he first arrived in Nicaragua, Linder appeared to others as a fun-loving adventurer guided by a desire to help the poor and work towards social justice. In one letter back to the United States Linder wrote, “So why am I here? Adventure is part of it. Proving myself is also part. Doing good is a very large part. The rest I guess will be known in time.” [34] Linder did not profess a deep desire to join the Sandinistas nor was he a virulent Marxist. He developed close relationships with the people of Nicaragua, many of whom were revolutionaries, yet this was not the reason he associated with them. He chose to associate with them out of personal admiration for their unwavering perseverance in the face of terrible poverty and constant instability. Similarly, although he worked for the INE, the state electric company run by the Sandinista government, he did so out if his desire to help the poor get electricity and improve their lives. As the director to TecNica, a technology development group for Nicaragua, stated about Linder, “He was one of the most unideological people I’d ever me. He never made political statements…he was a humanely motivated revolutionary. His revolution had everything to do with people, and nothing to do with theory.” [35] Although members of the Reagan administration, including Vice President George H.W. Bush labeled him a communist after his death, [36] those who personally interacted with him during the time he worked in Nicaragua felt his politics did not warrant such a label.

Like Witness for Peace volunteers, Linder also traveled back to the United States to spread his message and raise money. He participated in a speaking tour throughout Northwest United States to raise money to build another hydroelectric plant in Matagalpa. Mira Brown, his partner on the speaking tours, explained that, “the project was possible because we’re in a country with a revolutionary government, a country with an agrarian reform…where people not only have the freedom to organize themselves…but are encouraged…to resolve their own community’s problems.” [37] Brown’s quote showed that by using a similar method as other U.S. peace activists, Linder and Brown attempted to explain the virtues of the Sandinista government as being similar to that of the United States. Thus, the U.S.’s support of the Contras was in direct violation of these mutual virtues of self-governance and freedom that each country strongly identified with. In addition, Brown and Linder also shared their stories about the devastating effects of Contra attacks. During their presentations at local churches and solidarity groups, they showed pictures of widows and El Cuá’s “bullet-scarred” ambulance and told stories of the danger of El Cuá due to Contra attacks. [38] While the fundraising tour was a success, Linder had difficulty relating to his friend and family in the U.S. because how the atrocities of the war had shaped him and sobered him to the injustice of the world.

As his time in Nicaragua continued, Linder eventually decided to arm himself when working closely with Nicaraguan people on development projects in areas prone to Contra attacks. The grim realities of war become more apparent as he moved from the capital Managua to the smaller village of El Cuá. Linder’s father explained that his decision to carry a rifle was not strictly for self defense. Kruckewitt quotes David Linder as saying, “If he did not carry one, people would be sent along with him to protect him, and he didn’t want Nicaraguans endangering their lives for him…” [39] Although Linder was motivated by his moral outrage to take a stance against the Contras by helping the people of the countryside, he was not a violent communist revolutionary; that is, he did not take up arms for ideological reasons. Unfortunately Linder story ends tragically as well; while working on the new hydroelectric plant he was gunned down by Contras and murdered.

Linder’s death sparked upset and protests throughout Nicaragua and the United States. Those who opposed Contra aid used Linder’s death at solid proof that the Contras were terrorists, especially when the autopsy showed that he was killed from point-blank range while wounded. [40] The Contras involved in the killings claim that the Sandinistas were fired first and the Reagan administration stated that while they regretted his death, any American working in the war zone puts themselves at risk. This moral outrage over Linder’s death also prompted political action; the Linder’s parents spoke at a hearing in the U.S. Congress about their son’s death and organized a peace tour which raised $25,000 to continue the projects in El Cuá. [41] His parents also held press conferences denouncing the Reagan administrations support of the Contras and urged Congress to vote down proposals for aid to the Contras. The aftermath of Ben Linder’s death showed how moral outrage led to political action in the United States due to the circumstances surrounding the Contra war in Nicaragua.

As a result of President Ronald Reagan’s staunch support for the Contras throughout the 1980, a strong social movement emerged, rallying for peace in the small Central American nation of Nicaragua. By analyzing the testimony of volunteers, those from the group, Witness for Peace, and the individual activist, Ben Linder, it can be deduced that moral outrage over the atrocities committed by the Contras motivated these peace activists to take political action back in the United States. Although the activists were from varying backgrounds, they were united by their profound feelings of fury at the Reagan administration for aiding what they believed to be an inhumane terrorist organization. Thus, the volunteers channeled their resources into creating a political opposition to the Contras in their own nation, the United States, while supporting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.


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Bruning, Fred “One American Life.” Newsday, 6 December 1987, A8

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[1] Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 146.

[2] Smith, 11.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States and Central America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993) 225.

[5] David Brown. “The Sandinista Legacy in Nicaragua” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 30, No. 3, (May 2003), pp. 107

[6] Brown, 107

[7] LaFeber 315

[8] Phillip A. Dennis, “The Miskito-Sandinista Conflict in Nicaragua in the 1980s,” Latin America Research Review , Vol 28 No 3(1993), pp. 216

[9] Smith, 37.

[10] 71.

[11] Smith, 73.

[12] Smith, 74.

[13] Smith, 77.

[14] Clare Weber, Visions of Solidarity: U.S. Peace Activists in Nicaragua From War to Women’s Activism and Globalization (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2006) p 43.

[15] Joan Kruckewitt, The Death of Ben Linder (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 1999) 59-60.

[16] Krukewitt 15

[17] Rebecca Gordon, Letters from Nicaragua (San Francisco, CA: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Book Company, 1986) 23.

[18] Gordon, 54

[19] Gordon, 5

[20] James McGinnis, Solidarity with the People of Nicaragua (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985) p 78.

[21] McGinnis, 80

[22] Smith, 160.

[23] Kruckewitt, 163-165.

[24] Smith, 134.

[25] Weber, 49.

[26] Smith, 239

[27] Smith, 247

[28] Ibid.

[29] Smith, 263

[30] Nicaragua Network, “We’ve Seen This Before: Last Time, it was called Vietnam.” New York Times, 22 December 1986, p. A23.

[31] Nicaragua Network, “We’ve Seen This Before: Last Time, it was called Vietnam.” New York Times, 22 December 1986, p. A23.

[32] Witness for Peace, “Contra Atrocities” New York Times, 12 March 1986, p A24

[33] Smith, 213

[34] Kruckewitt, 18

[35] Kruckewitt, 225

[36] Fred Bruning, “One American Life” Newsday, 6th December 1987, pg A8.

[37] Kruckewitt, 204

[38] Kruckewitt, 215

[39] Kruckewitt, 221

[40] Kruckewitt, 337

[41] Kruckewitt, 340

Last Updated: 12/19/17