Saul Landau, 1936-2013

Journalist and filmmaker Saul Landau died on September 10 at the age of 77. Landau was a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and vice chair of their board. Landau made more than 45 films and wrote 14 books, many about Cuba. “He stood up to dictators, right-wing Cuban assassins, pompous politicians, and critics from both the left and the right,” IPS Director John Cavanagh said in a statement. “When he believed in something, nobody could make him back down. Those who tried would typically find themselves on the receiving end of a withering but humorous insult.”

Landau’s most recent film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up? exposed U.S. support for violent anti-Castro militants. Last year, Landau appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss the history of the Cuban Five and U.S. support for a group of anti-Castro militants who have been behind the bombing of airplanes, the blowing up of hotels, and assassinations. Today, they live freely in the United States. “What did Cuba do to us?,” Landau asks. “Well, the answer, I think, is that they were disobedient in our hemisphere…and the United States…has never forgiven them.”

Landau constantly mocked the hypocrisy he saw in U.S. policies, particularly in Latin America. Over the course of his career, Landau made six films about Cuba. His most popular was the 1968 PBS documentary Fidel, shot during a week-long jeep tour of the country that allowed him unprecedented access to Castro. New York and Los Angeles premieres of the film were both canceled after firebomb attacks on the theaters. “These right-wing Cubans had, how shall I say it, ‘strong views’ on free speech,” Saul later commented. 

In 1971, Saul released two films about the election of Chilean President Salvador Allende, Latin America’s first democratically-elected socialist leader. Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier invited Landau to screen one of the films at the embassy and they became friends. Two years later, a military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the Allende government and imprisoned Letelier.

Landau worked with other international supporters to secure Letelier’s release and to arrange a job for him at IPS where he became one of the most prominent critics of the Chilean dictatorship. In 1976, agents of Pinochet used a car bomb to assassinate Letelier and IPS colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC.

Landau launched an IPS investigation into the murders. He was suspicious of the FBI, which had conducted extensive surveillance and infiltration of IPS during the Nixon era. In the course of the investigation, however, Landau developed a close working relationship with the lead FBI agents and maintained strong friendships with them for decades after the crime.

In 1980, Landau co-authored (with former Washington Post reporter John Dinges) a book on the Letelier-Moffitt case, Assassination on Embassy Row, which was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award.

In 1995, Landau and his former IPS colleague Joan Garces co-authored the book Orlando Letelier: Testimonio y Vindicación to help revive efforts to bring Pinochet to justice. Three years later, Landau was thrilled when a case Garces had filed in the Spanish courts resulted in the former dictator’s arrest in London.While Pinochet ultimately avoided prosecution, Landau celebrated this measure of justice and the precedent it set for international human rights law. With obvious glee, he wrote that as a result of the arrest, “rumors abound that Henry Kissinger makes discrete inquiries before he travels abroad, to assure himself that he won’t get ‘Pinocheted’.”

Landau also supported the Institute’s annual Letelier-Moffitt human rights awards, which for 36 years,  was given to new heroes of the human rights movement in the United States and Latin America. Landau himself received the award in 1992. In 2008, the Chilean government presented him with the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, the highest civilian honor awarded to non-Chilean citizens.

Landau’s other books and films and articles covered the gamut, from the U.S. Congress to Nicaragua, Mexico, Jamaica, and a final set of articles on U.S. policy in Syria. He worked with IPS up to the day of his death, helping to set up two year-long fellowships for young public scholars.

He also taught classes at the California Polytechnic University in Pomona, the University of California- Santa Cruz, and American University. He used his vast repertoire of vivid stories and off-color jokes to engage his students and open their minds to alternative perspectives.

“A large part of his legacy will be that he mentored countless young people and instilled in them the importance of history and the radical idea that we can make our own history,” said IPS co-founder Marcus Raskin.

In his book A Bush and Botox World, Landau railed against the shallowness of political and consumer culture, appealing to readers to “stop allowing the message senders to keep us in the sucker role and instead play a role during the course of our short passages in the long historical drama.”

The Institute for Policy Studies will host a public memorial service at the Liaison Hotel in Washington, DC, on Saturday, October 12, at 6 PM. Another service will be held in San Francisco on a date to be determined.