I was president of the Tecnica board in the late 1980s through 1992 when it went belly-up. Relying heavily on donations from liberal and radical foundations, it was victimized by the FSLN getting voted out of office in 1990. Nicaragua was no longer sexy. We had already launched a technical aid program for the ANC and the frontline states but it was not well-established enough to survive the downturn in funding.
In 1984 I went down to Nicaragua to observe the elections with a delegation from the Guardian newspaper, a weekly radical publication that went out of business in 1992. Nothing in my experience in the SWP prepared us for what a living revolution would be like. The same kind of peasants who were fighting for land in El Salvador were now enjoying a much better life on cooperatives in liberated Nicaragua. Health care was now universally available and literacy programs were making people real participants in the political life of the country.
When one of the members of my delegation found out that I was a computer programmer, he slipped me a leaflet that some people in the Bay Area had put together. They were looking for computer programmers and other skilled professionals to work in Nicaragua. After the Sandinistas had taken over, a lot of the better paid workers had fled to Miami just as had happened in Cuba after 1959. As soon as I got back from Nicaragua, I called the number on the leaflet and spoke to Michael Urmann, an economist who had launched the project called Tecnica. I agreed to go back to Nicaragua for two weeks with a delegation of about 15 other technical specialists and give some classes on structured programming techniques. I brushed up on my high school Spanish and returned with my course notes.
I ended up teaching at the Central Bank in Nicaragua, their version of the Federal Reserve. About one out of four students seemed like committed Sandinistas but the rest were like young people anywhere. They simply wanted a better life. Like young computer programmers everywhere, the job was a means to an end.
I was all set to take on a new job at the Ministry of Construction supporting the largest mainframe in the country, which was about 1/10th the size of the computers I was used to working on at home. The people at this agency were more political than at the Central Bank and I was knocked out to hear revolutionary folk songs being sung over lunch. Things were never like that at my jobs at Houston and Boston banks.
On my last night in Nicaragua, Michael Urmann persuaded me to go back to New York and start a chapter of Tecnica there. At that point they were primarily based in the Bay Area and he was trying to build a national organization. He had hopes that we could eventually become a kind of radical version of the Peace Corps. He needed a political veteran like me to get kick-start things on the East Coast. Largely in recognition of my organizing skills, I was named President of Tecnica after it became incorporated as a nonprofit.
In trips out to the West Coast, I got to know Michael Urmann well. Like me, he was a veteran of the sectarian left and around the same age as me. As a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor party, he went to work in a warehouse in the 1960s long before the SWP made its “turn”. After a few months of backbreaking work with little to show for it politically, he dropped out of the PLP and went back to grad school. We had lots of laughs when we exchanged stories about factory work. We also laughed at the absurdity of turf wars between the Maoists and the Trotskyists in the 1960s. Like Peter Camejo, we had moved on to a more sensible place.
The project flourished through most of the late 1980s. Every month we sent down about twenty volunteers to work with Nicaraguan agencies, including the engineer who had responsibility for repairing electrical pylons blown up by the contras.
We also worked with a young American engineer named Ben Linder who found his way down to Nicaragua on his own. We raised money and provided some technical assistance for a small-scale hydroelectric project he had initiated in contra-infested northern Nicaragua.
On April 28, 1987 Ben was killed by contras while working on the small-scale hydroelectric dam that was his pet project. It sent shock waves through the movement and drove home the risks of working in Nicaragua. As a sign that we would not be intimidated, volunteer applications doubled in the months following Ben’s murder.
We received another shock the very same month. FBI agents went to the personnel offices at the workplace of twelve returned Tecnica volunteers and called them in for interviews in front of their boss. They were told that Tecnica was at the center of an espionage ring that was running high technology out of Nicaragua to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Anybody who had ever been to Nicaragua would realize how ridiculous this charge was. There was only one elevator in the entire country.
A number of important newspapers and politicians condemned the investigation and forced the FBI to end its harassment. This opening paragraph from a May 19 1987 Washington Post editorial was typical:
IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.
In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation, including Michael Urmann. We were to meet with the African National Congress and leaders of some of the “frontline” states, including Mozambique, in order to see if an expansion of our volunteer program into Africa was feasible.
Since the ANC was still in exile in this point (apartheid was on the ropes but not ended), we ended up in Lusaka, Zambia where most of the top officials lived, including Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa.
We were invited to his house for a meeting to figure out whether there was a basis for future work. Mbeki lived in a two story house in a rather upscale neighborhood that was unlike the rest of the city. I noticed a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway.
His life-style was different from the average Zambian’s. On the way over to his house in a cab, Urmann asked the driver why so many office buildings were uncompleted. Since housing was one of his academic interests, such matters were always uppermost in his mind. The cabbie glared at him and said, “The buildings are not finished because you people took all the money with you.”
After our discussion with Mbeki ended, his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC.
Me: Mrs. Mbeki, you need to put in a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech.
Zanele: What is the B drive?
Me: It is right here (I pointed to the slot.) Let me take care of it for you. (I formatted the diskette and got everything in order.) You are all set now.
Zanele: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I was so desperate.
I felt like my existence had finally been vindicated. Other people would be chosen to make monumental speeches. My purpose was to make sure that the speech would not disappear in some technical black hole.
On June 10, 1987, a couple of months after Ben Linder’s murder and the FBI sweep, NY Newsday did a big story on Nicaragua activists and included a mini-profile on me. The author, a likeable fellow named Jonathan Mandell who was clearly sympathetic, wrote about me:
Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.
I can’t even remember what point I was trying to make at the time. Was I trying to say that I was not some stupid sectarian blathering about revolution? Or was I just trying to make sure that Goldman did not decide to fire me after the article appeared?
Goldman did eventually get rid of me but it had nothing to do with politics, but the need to cut costs after the stock market crash in 1987–although I suppose that this is political as well. After 3 years of consulting I ended up at Columbia University where I lived happily ever after.