Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 27, 2008


Filed under: Africa,Latin America,science — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

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.


  1. You mean, the very same Columbia University whose history includes invitations for that Nazi diplomat, as you yourself explained !? Wow !

    Comment by littlehorn — July 27, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  2. I guess Littlehorn is one of those people they describe as irony-impaired.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 27, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  3. Thanks Louis, that was great to read.

    Comment by hollowentry — July 28, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  4. It’s not that I’m irony-impaired -thanks for the insult by the way- I’m just surprised you’re teaching there, out of all places.

    I never got to thank you for including my blog on your list. Thank you, I’m truly honored.

    Comment by littlehorn — July 29, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  5. I must say after watching that video i’m intrigued; that is, it left me wanting to know more. Like where are they now?
    Not only the tecNica volunteers but also what happenend to the people they interacted with in Nicaragua?
    How do they feel about Nicaragua now?

    I see a feature-length documentary in it.

    Comment by atlas — July 31, 2008 @ 2:58 am

  6. I was one of a group of 15 or so Tecnica volunteers that arrived in Managua in early May of 1987. I recall meeting a fellow (who I am still in touch with here in Boston) at the Ministry of Health (MINSA) Apparatus Repair Shop where it had been arranged that I would work. He was working on an EKG machine or something of the sort and I was supposed to be teaching folks how to run lathes and milling machines in the machine shop. As it turned out, they had a pretty skilled group of folks there and there didn’t seem to be anything for me to do. Before I left I recall one small victory that I engineered. A young fellow had been trying to reproduce a high tech machined part that had been produced on some type of computer numerically control machine and it just wasn’t going to be duplicated in this shop. He had been working on it for three weeks and it kept breaking as he tried to mill the thin slots in the piece. I asked what the part was used for and nobody knew (I wondered if we could make the design less complex). So I wandered over to a different part of the compound and spoke to the people who had requested the part. They explained it was a coupling that was attached to a small motor on a machine used to mix dental fillings. I sketched a simplified version of the part and went back to the shop where the same young fellow reproduced the coupling from my sketch in about 30 minutes. I was hoping they needed some more of these couplings but as it turned out, I was a one trick pony and that was my only victory at the repair shops. After that I hooked up with a Dutch mechanical engineer and a Guatemalan contract machine repairer who were traveling to some outlying towns to survey the needs of various institutions, mostly hospitals but we also went to some government owned factories including one that made tanks to store fresh water. I wrote up specifications for some of the hydraulics components and other mechanical spare parts that were needed and also ended up doing some computer training as I recall. I remember talking to a Soviet engineer who had been drafted (it seems) to work at the repair shop. I say that because he didn’t seem like he was really digging being there. He had no love for the all the U.S.-made equipment in the factory and said something to the effect of “It’s American. You are American. I don’t know anything about it. You fix it.” In a way I could relate to his remark as I had been trained in using inches in machine shops back in the U.S. and the machine tools were all made outside the U.S. and used metric measurement. I was a bit lost at first and was constantly using my calculator to convert metric measurements into inches. After a day or two I got the hang of it but I must have looked pretty funny with that calculator in my hand all the time.

    I don’t remember what kind of work all the other volunteers in our group were doing but I know one fellow was teaching broadcasting at the Sandinista radio station and someone else was doing machine repair at the Barricada newspaper printing plant. We had a civil engineer in our group and also an urban planner. Thank you for putting the film up for everyone to see and thank you for giving me the opportunity to work in Nicaragua.

    The staff that was there at the time was wonderful and I always wondered where they ended up. I can be reached at charlie [at] tecnet.org.

    Comment by Charlie Rosenberg — August 1, 2008 @ 1:08 am

  7. Louis,

    Great article and video. You captured the spirit of the 80s in Nicaragua and among those internationalistas to went to participate in a dream.

    Drop me a note.

    Roger Burbach

    Comment by Roger Burbach — August 30, 2008 @ 2:05 am

  8. […] …there was Tecnica. […]

    Pingback by Engineers Without Borders - Boston University Blog » Boston University Blogs — December 8, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  9. […] Coordination, (CRIES).  In Berkeley he had been an avid supporter and volunteer for the group tecNICA helping to send people and supplies to Nicaragua.  He was also involved in bikes when he was in […]

    Pingback by Ed (Skip) Colaianni 1948-2008 « Remembering Ed Colaianni — January 11, 2009 @ 2:49 am

  10. […] just took a look at my posting of the Google video on my blog that month and was pleased to see the late Roger Burbach’s […]

    Pingback by The Tecnica video is back online | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 22, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

  11. Saludos! I went to Nicaragua the same year as you (US warships anchored offshore, sabotaging by night; and air strikes from Honduras,,,, were in the news). We were part of a carpenter’s brigade that joined a cotton picking brigade in the north, because building war refugee housing in the south was too dangerous (thanks to Cmd Zero). After that I went back to school to upgrade to GIS, and went to work in Chiapas where the next year the Zapatistas took over. Thus began my map making life. In solidarity,,,

    Comment by dean gibson — September 6, 2019 @ 10:30 pm

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