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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 156 | Julio 1994
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Nicaragua

Ben Linder's Dream: Electricity Comes to Bocay

Judy Butler

Just over seven years after US hydroelectric engineer, clown, unicyclist and political activist Benjamin Linder was killed by contras in Bocay, Jinotega, the dream he was researching at the time of his death became reality. On May 21, 1994, hundreds of Bocay residents gathered under drizzling rain to watch as the switch was thrown on the "Benjamin Linder mini-central hydroelectric power plant."

Ben was shot at point-blank range on April 28, 1987, as he sat contemplating where to build a dam for this project. The precise spot is now under the water that the dam catches and channels down the steep mountainside to the turbine.

The Project that
Solidarity Built

That turbine is the project's tour de force, a 250-kw beauty designed by a team at UNI, Nicaragua's engineering university, and assembled piece by piece in Bocay from parts turned out in the project's own machine shop in neighboring El Cuá. It is the largest turbine built in Nicaragua and the first built outside of Managua. Asked why it was decided to build it from scratch rather than import it, one team member smiled coyly and said, "We wanted to show that it could be done." Doing so also provided jobs and training that the project director would now like to reproduce elsewhere in the region.

The original assumption was that the turbine could be built in two years but, like everything in Nicaragua, it took much longer. Its main enemies were the war, the US embargo, the perilous and narrow mountain roads along which the machinery had to be brought, and Hurricane Joan, which hit in October 1988. Flood waters brought by the hurricane washed away part of the canal that carried water to the smaller hydroelectric project Ben had earlier installed in the municipal capital of El Cuá, leaving the town—and the machine shop—with no electricity for six months.

But if the project had enemies, it also had friends. When the beleaguered Sandinista government explained that it had no money to rebuild the canal, Rebecca Leaf, the Bocay project's hands-on director, imperturbably took the route that has now become the project's hallmark: solidarity. She put up notices in all the tourist hostels in Matagalpa and Managua, asking for volunteers. Soon dozens of people from as many countries were sloshing ankle deep in mud, rebuilding the broken canal in exchange for "three plates of rice and beans a day," as the notice had promised.

The Bocay project was largely financed the same way. Apart from some funding from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the Swedish government, Ben's family raised the bulk of the estimated $500,000 to build the dam and turbine through grueling years of speaking tours around the United States. The project may have begun as the desire of one wiry, young, sandy-haired engineer to help improve the lives of Nicaragua's poor peasants, but it became reality with the collective aid of thousands of North Americans. Some contributed because they were moved by Ben's life and his dream, others to assuage the pain of his incomprehensible death, still others surely as an act of affirmative opposition to the US government's senseless and intentionally brutal war. All valid motives, all now immortalized along with Ben himself in the powerful hum of Bocay's shiny new turbine.

Clowns, Balloons...and Light

The inaugural event, sponsored by the Benjamin Linder Rural Development Workers Association (ATDER-BL), was as special as the project, and everyone in town got in on the act. Bunches of balloons festooned the shops along the main street and children were dressed in their finest. The day-long celebration began with a bull run and cock fights, and was capped by late-night dancing to music powered by the town's new electricity source.

The formal inauguration that afternoon was an homage not only to Ben, but to everyone who had caught his spirit and carried the project to completion. The list is long. Rebecca Leaf, a hydroelectric engineer who has lived in Cuá-Bocay directing the project since 1987. Ben's family, which was flown into Bocay by helicopter, courtesy of Nicaragua's Air Force. The nearly 200 Nicaraguans and North Americans who have worked turning out parts in the machine shop, or building the dam, or laying the huge pipe down the mountainside, or assembling the turbine, or sinking the poles and stringing the wires. The UNI team that designed the turbine... And, as David Linder, Ben's father, reminded the crowd, it was also an homage to the two Nicaraguan co-workers killed together with Ben, as well as to the tens of thousands of other Nicaraguans who also died in the war.

The event was not without many poignant moments, as one might imagine. The duo of local clowns who learned their trade from Ben. The young boy who rode a makeshift unicycle his father had fashioned from half a gas drum. The socio-drama group that played out the three moments in Bocay's recent life from no light, to light two hours a day, to what it will mean for health and education services to have electricity 24 hours a day. Then there were Rebecca Leaf's gifts to the most outstanding ATDEL-BL workers, among which was Ben's personal notebook. "Ben jotted down all his thoughts and ideas here, as they occurred to him," she said. "I've kept it all this time, and now I want you to have it, so you'll be inspired to do the same and turn them into reality. And you can read his, since he wrote them in Spanish."

Perhaps the most bizarrely symbolic moment came when three Nicaraguan members of the Communal Development Commission that will be responsible for operating and maintaining the project took their turn at the mike. "I was a member of the Nicaraguan Resistance...," began the first man. A shudder ran up the spines of the visiting North Americans, as they were suddenly faced with the challenge of reconciliation that Nicaraguans have been grappling with for the past four years. "...And I am also a peasant who wants development for this area." He felt compelled to mention that he had not fought in this zone—thus assuring the Linder family by implication that he was in no way involved in Ben's death. The men spoke in favor of peace, and specifically commended the reconciliation policy of municipal mayor Luis Kuan, a Sandinista.

Cuá-Bocay's History:
War at the "End of the Road"

Cuá-Bocay covers 43% of the department of Jinotega. But its isolated, eastern mountains are so sparsely populated (33,000 inhabitants) that the area only achieved municipal status in 1990. Before 1991, the winding dirt road out from the departmental capital of Jinotega City literally ended halfway into the municipality. It went as far as San José de Bocay, a "town" that, prior to the war, only had a handful of houses, a Catholic church and the region's last National Guard post to fall to the FSLN.

El Cuá, now the municipal capital, lies 40 kms. before Bocay. Its National Guard jail was immortalized in Ernesto Cardenal's poem about a group of local peasant women tortured there in the late 1960s to confess where their supposedly Sandinista "muchachos" were. The Guard's brutality reaped no confessions from the women—just new Sandinista sympathizers in a place where few had existed before.

All of Cuá-Bocay's districts are very poor, and most still have limited or no accessibility by road. Much of the land was once owned by rich Jinotega coffee and plantain growers and was confiscated after the revolution; some have now gotten it back, but few are working it. The zone's altitude and wet climate are suitable for coffee, if technified to compensate for the eroded soils, but in the past few years most peasants could, at best, only afford to grow subsistence crops.

Jinotega was not as important in the FSLN's years of pre-revolutionary struggle as the neighboring border department of Las Segovias, but it became central to the contra war. Bocay, the last town on the Río Bocay as it cuts north through the mountains to feed into the Río Coco, was a pivotal target. Resistance fighters used the river as a corridor in from Honduras, had base camps in the surrounding mountains and support in several communities around Bocay. Ambrosio Mogorrón, a Basque nurse, was killed there a year before Ben, along with nine other civilians, when the truck they were riding in drove over a US-made anti-tank mine.

In 1984, after both Bocay and El Cuá had been attacked several times, the FSLN implemented a socio-military plan to protect the population and keep Bocay from being taken by contra forces. It consisted of creating a defense backbone and economic structure along the road into Cuá and between it and Bocay. Settlements and agricultural self-defense cooperatives were organized for peasant families flocking down from the mountains. Despite constant attacks, the settlements prospered under government subsidies and access to commerce. El Cuá and Bocay grew to towns of several thousand residents—largely displaced peasants who opted for "urban" life over the collective land tenure scheme of the settlement cooperatives.

At the end of 1987, the Bocay mountains were the battlefield for Operation Danto, a massive army offensive against the contra strongholds. While Bocay continued to suffer attacks as late as 1988, that offensive marked the contra war's strategic defeat. Those mountains, historic home of Miskito and Sumu Indians, are now part of a sizable new forest reserve called Bosawás.

Default Government
Becomes Peacemaker

In the 1990 elections, UNO won 66.6% of the Cuá-Bocay vote to 33.4% for the FSLN—not a single vote went to any of the other eight parties running. The FSLN won a majority in El Cuá, but in the outlying communities it could not compete with war exhaustion, opposition to the draft, people's feeling that they were not represented by local FSLN and government leaders—most of whom were from neighboring cities—and the contras' support base (or armed intimidation).

As in many other places, the vote seems to have been more one of protest than a measure of UNO's local strength or outreach work. Evidence for that thesis in Cuá-Bocay is compelling: the UNO parties only mustered enough candidates to fill three of the ten slots on their municipal slate.

The FSLN thus found itself, by default, in the awkward position of heading the local government in a polarized municipality that had voted against it two to one. In retrospect, however, this unfortuitous situation is what has most contributed to Cuá-Bocay's relative peace today.

In many northern municipalities won by UNO, extremist mayors exacerbated the polarization instead of working to overcome it. In Cuá-Bocay, in contrast, even strong opponents of the FSLN give Sandinista mayor Luis Kuan's even-handed policy much of the credit for stabilizing the area.

Kuan's government has actively sought funding for much-needed projects, and has implemented those it was awarded with no favoritism for pro-Sandinista districts. It even found land and got funding from the OAS International Support and Verification Commission (CIAV) for former EPS and RN members to build 35 houses—together.

As vice-mayor Carlos Valdivia explained, "Our strategy was to be broad-based, to govern for the people, not for a party. We were afraid at first, but the fact that the new central government wasn't revanchist calmed our own anxiety. We began to talk to RN members, then to drink together, party together. We told them to tell us if the army hassled them. We even expelled radical Sandinistas from the zone. Others try to keep the microbe of hatred alive, but we have to put it behind us and grow."

War Not Over for Bocay

Snuffing out the microbe of hate has been neither quick nor easy. Only a few months after the new government took office, UNO politicians from Jinotega City went to Bocay to stir people up about having "non-representative" municipal councilors. After the life of the councilor in charge of Bocay was threatened and he was forced out of town, Kuan let the residents choose their own "mayor" and agreed to work with the UNO activist they picked. (That man fled at the end of last year, when people discovered he was an embezzler. They replaced him with one of Bocay's Sandinista councilors, a respected UNAG leader who agreed to work in conjunction with a broad-based civic committee.)

Those agitators were followed by a group called the Independent Cooperative Movement, which allied with reactionary merchants moving into the area and with hot-headed RN members. Their main targets were UNAG structures such as the Peasant Stores and cooperatives; they even threatened UNAG activists with death. Their agitation was much more successful in Bocay than in El Cuá, which had a "critical mass" of Sandinistas and a more urbanized, less acquiescent population.

Making things even tougher, 3,000 demobilized RN members returned to the municipality (compared to only 32 discharged EPS officers). Bocay was the final drop-off point for 1,300 of the ex-RN combatants as well as truckloads of returning refugees from the town and surrounding communities. One resident recalls that the former combatants were camped out everywhere during the last half of 1990, living off of supplies CIAV provided monthly. Some had no land to go to, and others, particularly younger men, wanted to live in town, but could find neither a job nor a place to live.

By December of that year, only 300 of the demobilized had found land. That, combined with a poor coffee harvest and more unemployment looming with the end of the picking season, led several recontra groups to form and begin to hold up vehicles traveling the isolated roads. At the end of April 1991, some 300 recontras attacked an army construction brigade just finishing a road from Bocay out to Ayapal, an RN stronghold and site of a promised "development pole." It was the first army-recontra encounter. The next month the recontras closed the Bocay-Jinotega City road and sacked Bocay's bank, government offices and even CIAV's warehouse.

Bocay was convulsed through May 1992. Recontras "owned the streets," according to residents, extorting goods from stores and swaggering around drunk. Periodically their chiefs came into town and called public meetings to urge people to throw out all Sandinistas, including teachers and health workers. The army had pulled its troops back to El Cuá after the Ayapal incident, and the police in Bocay by then were all ex-RN combatants. Residents say the police tried to respond, but were in a tough position: at that time any conciliatory RN member was considered a traitor to the cause.

Many Sandinista families left for El Cuá, including the local bank director, who went in December 1991 after "Nortiel," one of the most recalcitrant recontra leaders, called a mock trial in the streets and harangued the population to sentence him to death. Shortly afterward, the recontras broke into the police station, stealing all the weapons, and started shooting up the town, killing a retarded man. They also sacked the local health center and threatened to kill the medic until CIAV intervened. At that point even the police retreated into El Cuá.

Bocay's hydroelectric project was never directly targeted during this period, though Rebecca Leaf was once robbed on the road and a Sandinista worker in Cuá's machine shop was kidnapped and nearly killed before he managed to escape. From as early as 1989, the project had begun to incorporate former RN fighters. Several received training and worked in the machine shop and others worked alongside former army personnel building the dam and pipeline. Rebecca said this reconciliation policy was not without its tensions at first, but has generally worked out well. Another factor that may have spared the project is that it has no links to the central government, and thus does not serve as a pressure point in negotiations. In addition, the project benefits the local population as a whole and several communities beyond its reach, including RN strongholds, have even expressed interest in replicating it on a smaller scale in their area.

Relative Calm Returns

A series of factors finally began to reverse the situation. One was that people in Bocay began to feel so besieged that they asked the army and police to come back. Another was that the central government's negotiation campaign during the first half of 1992 dwindled the recontras' ranks; residents recall that the plaza was full of activity for weeks when the Special Disarmament Brigade implemented a government decision to pay recontras and civilians to turn in their weapons. Finally, when "Indomable," the scourge of Region VI, was paid a handsome sum to leave the country, most groups under his leadership lost their direction. Those who did not disarm at that point became subject to active army pursuit.

Recontras who genuinely felt at the beginning that they were "righting Sandinista abuses" now realize that the movement was not unified behind that position. The most principled ones have also come to see reconciliation as valid and necessary, a vision actively encouraged by the mayor's team.

Although violence in the zone has now diminished greatly, it has not ended. Several recontra bands survived the local state of emergency and army pursuit of mid-1993, and did not join the Northern Front 3-80's demobilization earlier this year. One such group is led by "El Charro" (who upholds the political demands once expressed by the Northern Front 3-80) and "Nortiel" (who many say is a war-damaged misfit who never demobilized). Simple highway banditry is also on the rise and some say that El Charro has adopted a "Robin Hood" role of protecting locals from these groups.

Cuá's Police Force:
"Bastion of Reconciliation"

Bocay's "wild west" experience in 1991-92 matched the violent and vengeful anarchy that still reigns in some northern municipalities, particularly in Region I, but, as everywhere else, Cuá-Bocay also has numerous encouraging examples of reconciliation. Perhaps the most impressive of these is El Cuá's police force.

As a result of a central government agreement, hundreds of ex-RN members were given police training and, in early 1992, what had previously been a Sandinista police force in Cuá became 50% ex-RN. Captain Vidal Benavídez, a former RN leader known as "Ricardo" who headed the new Rural Police in the Rio Blanco demobilization zone, was transferred to Cuá as chief of its mixed force. He became extremely popular in the year and three months he was on the job; when he was killed in an ambush by "recompas" he was pursuing for a murder case in June 1993, everyone in Cuá attended his funeral. His immediate subordinate, veteran Sandinista Police officer Ghandi Castillo, took over as chief and a former RN combatant named Félix Humberto López became his second. By that time, the police detachment in Bocay, all former RN members, had been moved permanently to El Cuá due to budget cuts, making the force over 90% ex-RN.

In a joint interview late last year, Castillo and López referred to their force as a "bastion of reconciliation," and admitted they had "never dreamed there could be such levels of confidence" between the two former military opponents. Castillo explained that they are united by their constitutional duties in which party affiliation has no place, by the shared danger, and even by shared misery—the force has no radio, no typewriter, not enough boots and only one broken-down vehicle. They do not even have a meal budget for prisoners, so share their own food with them.

López nodded thoughtfully when Castillo commented that the solution to crime in Cuá-Bocay is economic, not punitive. The main problems in the zone are poverty, housing, land titles and credit, and health and education shortages.

Dr. César Rodríguez, a dedicated young doctor in the local health center, seconded that view at the time, adding that malnutrition and undernourishment among children was rampant. Some people's daily diet, he said, consisted of one tortilla with salt and a cooked banana.

Development for Bocay

That situation has become somewhat less critical this year. With the good harvest during the past cycle, most peasants were able to provide for their subsistence needs, and locals say that the Ministry of Social Action is now beginning to institute a small revolving credit in seeds, thus circumventing the bank's unwillingness—or inability—to provide credits to small producers.

There has been little external support to Cuá-Bocay so far, but the European Community is just beginning a three-year, $4.5 million program in the municipality. It is the newest and best-financed of some half a dozen such integral municipal projects the EC is implementing in the northern border strip all the way to the Atlantic Coast's Río Coco.

These projects are similar in design to those implemented by PRODERE, a dependency of the Uited Nations Development Program. Both grew out of the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), called by the UN in 1988 after the region's Presidents agreed in the Esquipulas peace accords to assist voluntary refugee repatriation. They specifically respond to proposals the Sandinista government submitted to aid people returning to the war-torn northern municipalities.

Both programs have the same dual objectives. The first is to help reinsert uprooted sectors (returning refugees, internally displaced and demobilized combatants) back into civilian life. The second is to provide what is coming to be known as "bridge" or "transition" aid to formerly conflictive areas that no longer need emergency assistance but do not yet meet the conditions necessary to make effective use of development aid. These two objectives are complementary since the CIREFCA-Esquipulas framework recognizes that the social, economic and political disenfranchisement of the poor was at the root of the conflict in the region and peace will not be lasting unless this situation is reversed. This means that the projects are designed to benefit the community as a whole, not just specific uprooted sectors. At the same time, these sectors are among the poorest of the poor, so their interests are given strong consideration in the projects' design and implementation.

The integral nature of both programs encompasses rebuilding basic social and economic infrastructure such as health centers, schools, roads and bridges, as well as reactivating basic production. It also involves creating or strengthening grassroots productive associations to enhance their access to and administration of revolving credits, grain storage areas, distribution mechanisms, training and technology transfer. Depending on the needs of each municipality, financing is also often provided for women's centers, local courthouses, municipal libraries, sports activities and environmental conservation programs.

In a conscious effort to foster reconciliation, spaces have been created for all these sectors—formerly enemies to a greater or lesser degree—to jointly discuss the real problems of their community and agree to solutions that the programs are prepared to implement. As hoped, ideological differences have given way among those participating to a process of practical reconciliation around their shared needs. In PRODERE's case, a pyramid of local organizations reaches the level of municipal government, thus strengthening the links between local government and the community base.

The Linder Project:
Similar but Better

The 10 permanent members of ATDER-BL have been working along similar lines for the past two years. Since only a fifth of the turbine's potential is needed to meet the town's existing consumer requirements, the potential for small-scale local development is sizable. A rice thresher has already been installed, as has a shop with various electrical tools and an air compressor.

Perhaps the association's most advanced effort is a conservation program in the dam's watershed area. The project began two years ago with a land-use survey of owners of the 38 properties in the area (of which 25 are being farmed). Since 80% said that the main factor limiting their cooperation with the program was the lack of credit, they proposed providing assistance to people who cooperativized and participated. ATDER-BL agreed to the idea, which Rebecca Leaf calls a "legacy of the revolution." Together with the residents, a technical team has been working out soil, forest and water conservation measures for the area. Those who sign an agreement to abide by these measures now receive farm credits, partly in cash and partly in materials such as fertilizer and insecticides.

Since deforestation would mean the death of the future water supply for the turbine, the program's main goal is to prevent the cutting of trees for sale as kindling and encourage the planting of fast-growing trees for firewood use. Thus one condition is the promise not to cut down trees or clear croplands by burning.
Even with that, however, about a dozen people will have to be relocated off of particularly sensitive lands, which some wealthier Bocay residents are beginning to purchase to protect as a forest reserve. Plans are also underway to see if the remainder of the poor-quality soil in this agricultural frontier area can be cultivated in a sustainable manner.

The Inter-American Foundation (IAF) has already provided about $5,000 for this project and is showing serious interest in funding the training component over the next several years. IAF official Wilbur Wright, who attended the inauguration of the hydroelectric plant, added that this congressionally-funded US agency is actively scouting other fundable projects in the northern border area as well.

The small-scale and integral nature of these ATDER-BL projects, the involvement of the local population, and the conscious reconciliation component would all appear to put ATDER-BL in a similar category with the EC and PRODERE efforts. But several significant differences put it in a category all its own. It is not a multi-million dollar theoretical experiment designed abroad and implemented locally over a three-year period, and it has no government backing, pricy technical experts or expensive Managua headquarters. It is a half-million dollar project whose dedicated foreign team has worked through, with and alongside the local population for nearly a decade, developing ideas as it went, in constant and respectful consultation with that population. It is truly a project that solidarity built.

ATDER-BL has put a lot of thought into the future management and ownership of the hydroelectric project so that it will genuinely be in the hands of the people. Just as the final plans for the Communal Development Commission were being drawn up and its broad-based membership finalized at the end of last year, Bocay agreed to its new "mayor." Since the representative profile of the civic committee he will work with is similar to that of the Communal Development Commission, the plan now is to turn the project over to a merger of the two groups. It is thus another example of the pragmatic reconciliation efforts underway, unsung, in many areas of the north.

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