- Saul Landauaward-winning journalist, filmmaker, author, professor who has made more than 45 films and written 14 books, many about Cuba. His latest film is Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, about U.S. support for violent anti-Castro militants.
Watch our interview with award-winning journalist, filmmaker, author and professor Saul Landau, who made more than 45 films and wrote 14 books, many about Cuba. He died in 2013 at the age of 77. Scroll down to read the complete transcript of the conversation.
In June 2012, we spoke to him about his most recent film “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” about U.S. support for violent anti-Castro militants. He also discussed 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 are allowed to 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 they did not ask permission to take away property. They took it away. They nationalized property. And the United States … has never forgiven them.”
See all of our coverage of Cuba and the Cuban Five.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the Cuban Five, we turn now to the award-winning filmmaker, author, professor Saul Landau. He has made more than 45 films and written 14 books, many about Cuba. His latest film is called Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, about U.S. support for violent anti-Castro militants. I interviewed Saul Landau last week when he came to New York. I started by asking him why he made the film.
SAUL LANDAU: Well, I went to Cuba in 1960 when I was a student, because I was curious. I was curious to see how a guy who was so disobedient, Fidel Castro, and his other revolutionaries were going to last. I didn’t think they could, and I went out to—I went down to Cuba to check it out. And I met people my age who were running government ministries and sleeping three hours a night and using a lot more of their brains than I was using. And I was impressed by watching people making history. And I think, like many other people who went down there at the time, this place seemed really different, that they were going to make a different kind of a revolution, and it was going to have its impact. And I think it did have its impact on the world. But that’s how I got there in the first place. And pretty soon, I was working to stop the United States from invading Cuba, like a lot of people who had gone down there.
And the first—one of the first talks I gave was in New York City at Town Hall. And as I came out, a guy tried to cut me on the back with a razor, a Cuban exile. I guess he took freedom of speech more seriously than I did. And subsequently, I made a film with Fidel Castro in 1968 for public television. It went on '69. And then the theatrical release was supposed to happen in New York in 1970 at the Fifth Avenue Cinema. And I think it would have happened if somebody hadn't put two bombs in the theater. So, that ended the opening in New York. So we were going to open it in Los Angeles, and the day before it was screened, the theater was burned down. The police determined it was arson. Nobody was caught in either case. Then Sandra Levinson, who was at that time a new director at the Center for Cuban Studies, was going to show it there. And the Center for Cuban Studies was bombed. This would have been 1973.
AMY GOODMAN: In New York.
SAUL LANDAU: In New York City. My next encounter with the Cuban terrorists was when my two colleagues, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were assassinated in Washington, D.C., by Cuban exiles working for the Chilean secret police now. So—and over the years, I’ve had—how should I say it—my share of credible death threats.
AMY GOODMAN: Orlando Letelier was a Chilean diplomat under Salvador Allende.
SAUL LANDAU: Yes, he had been the Chilean ambassador in Washington. That’s where I first met him. And I had invited him to come to the Institute for Policy Studies, where I was working. And he did. And he wasn’t even there a year, and he was blown up in his car on Sheridan Circle, three-quarters of a mile from the White House—very audacious act of terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: And you had been with him very close to the time he was killed.
SAUL LANDAU: I had dinner with him on Sunday night. He was killed on Tuesday morning. And on that Sunday night, we had come out—my wife and I had come out of his house, and I remember talking outside with our elbows on his car, which was parked in the driveway, not knowing, of course, there was a bomb underneath the car.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it was there at that point, Sunday night?
SAUL LANDAU: Well, according to the witnesses who later testified, they had put the car on late Saturday night—actually, early Sunday morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Had put the bomb…
SAUL LANDAU: They had placed the bomb on the car then.
AMY GOODMAN: And they hadn’t used it until Tuesday.
SAUL LANDAU: Yeah, they missed him Monday somehow, and so they got him on Tuesday.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet this relates to Cuba, because the assassins…
SAUL LANDAU: The assassins came from a Cuban group in northern New Jersey, in Weehawken, called the Cuban Nationalist Movement. Sometimes they went under the name of Omega 7. And the FBI had infiltrated them and knew from early on in their investigation that they had been the actual perps who did the thing, under the auspices of the Chilean secret police, who had ordered the assassination.
AMY GOODMAN: If the FBI had infiltrated them, did they know before that Orlando Letelier was under such threat?
SAUL LANDAU: No, they—well, according to what we know from the FBI agents and from the FOIA stuff, they found out afterwards. The assassination was on a Tuesday. I think Friday or Saturday their informant called up and said that it was the Cuban Nationalist Movement who did the job, and then he named the people who did it: Guillermo Novo Sampol and his brother Ignacio and Alvin Ross and José Dionisio Suárez. They were all arrested by the FBI very quickly and held in contempt for refusing to testify. Then they were tried and convicted, three of them. And two later were caught and convicted. But then the Novos got out, because the prosecutor made a procedural error. And in the second trial, their lawyers apparently learned more than the prosecutors, and they got off. And it was at that point Guillermo Novo, in the hall, just right after the trial, looked at me and then, in Spanish, he said, “And now we’re going to get the rest of those commie SOBs.” And I, you know, thought—very modestly, I responded by holding my finger up. And he advanced toward me very threateningly, and the FBI came between us. And then, very shortly afterwards, I was told I was on his target list, that I was—he had put a hit on me.
AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning filmmaker, author Saul Landau. His latest film is called Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. We’ll come back to the conversation in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to Saul Landau, director of the new film Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, which has been praised by, among others, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff of Secretary of State General Colin Powell. I asked Saul Landau to talk about relations between the United States and Cuba.
SAUL LANDAU: Well, I think that Cuba, in a sense, belongs in The Guiness Book of Records for disobedience, because—let me go back to a little story. There was a—in 2006, I was in Cuba with Gore Vidal and John Burton, who was the president of the California Senate, had just retired. He was termed out of office, actually. And we were meeting with a person from the United States interest section in Cuba, which is the equivalent of an embassy, but it isn’t an embassy because we don’t have formal relations with Cuba. And Burton asked the man from the interest section, the U.S. diplomat, “So, like, what did Cuba do to us, again?” And the man says, “Well, they violate human rights.” And Burton says, “Aw, come on.” He says, “The Chinese killed thousands of Americans in Korea. The Vietnamese killed thousands of Americans in Vietnam. They’ve both got single-party commie governments with stinking human rights records. So what did Cuba do to us, again?” And the man went on and on about Cuba violating human rights. Burton stormed out of the house.
But there it is. What did Cuba do to us? Well, the answer, I think, is that they were disobedient, in our hemisphere. And they did not ask permission to take away property. They took it away. They nationalized property. And the United States, on the one hand, has never forgiven them. And on the other hand, it has hosted a strange kind of lobby. Maybe after 1981, we had an anti-Castro lobby in this country, that was formed in part through the intervention of AIPAC, the American Israel Political Action Committee, who sort of taught them how to do it. And this is another—
AMY GOODMAN: Why did AIPAC care? In fact, Israel has relations with Cuba.
SAUL LANDAU: Well, they don’t have—they have economic relations with Cuba. Israeli investment is obvious in Cuba, especially in citrus. They don’t have diplomatic relations. But I think in the—the Reagan White House asked the AIPAC people to help the Cubans do this. I don’t think it was their own initiative.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet it’s fascinating that it was anti-Castro Cubans who attempted to assassinate President Reagan, as you show in your film.
SAUL LANDAU: Yes. They have used violence consistently over 50 years, even though it hasn’t worked. I mean, if anything, the violence has helped consolidate Fidel Castro’s rule and then the subsequent government. But they continue to use it. And if you ask them why they use it, they really can’t tell you. I mean, if you ask Orlando Bosch why he was violent, he says in the movie, well, he’s crazy. Another guy, Basulto, takes credit for all kinds of things. And Luis Posada Carriles simply denies that he did anything.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain who these men are.
SAUL LANDAU: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: José Basulto.
SAUL LANDAU: José Basulto formed—well, he had been a CIA agent in—from 1959 on. He was recruited by a fellow named David Atlee Phillips, who recruited quite a few people in that time. He also recruited Antonio Veciana. Veciana was the CIA’s top pick to kill Castro over the years.
AMY GOODMAN: Who you feature in the film, as well.
SAUL LANDAU: He’s in the film, as well. Anyway, Basulto, also working for the CIA and sometimes working for himself, fired some cannon at a hotel in 1962, so that he could prove there were Russians in Cuba, because the Russians then complained that their people had been fired at. José Basulto then formed an organization called Brothers to the Rescue, which was originally to save the lives of rafters who were leaving Cuba after the Soviet Union disappeared. He would radio—he and his pilots would radio their positions to nearby ships. But when the U.S. and Cuba signed a migration accord, he lost his mission, because there were no more rafters. They were being picked up by the Coast Guard and returned to Cuba. So he took a new mission. He was overflying Cuba.
The Cubans got word that he was going to fire a weapon or drop a weapon on them. And they notified the United States that future overflights would meet the gravest of consequences, meaning they would get shot down. And Basulto was told by the U.S. government that future flights would be very dangerous. In fact, the U.S. government sent a note to the Federal Aviation Agency saying, “Take their licenses away.” And the head of the FAA sent a note to the FAA chief in Miami, saying, “Take their licenses away. Don’t let them fly.” But the FAA chief in Miami did not follow orders. And they flew, February 24th, 1996, and two of their—of the three planes were shot down, pilots and co-pilots killed. And this brought about—
AMY GOODMAN: Basulto escaped and flew back to Florida.
SAUL LANDAU: Basulto miraculously escaped. Clinton responded by signing the Helms-Burton bill, which drastically tightened the embargo and also codified it. That is, he transferred power from the executive to Congress, something that was very rarely done in the 20th century.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was José Basulto.
SAUL LANDAU: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you mentioned Luis Posada Carriles.
SAUL LANDAU: Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch had teamed up in 1976 in October to knock down a Cuban airliner in the air, a passenger plane, which their agents successfully did over the island of Barbados. The agents were caught, and they ratted on Posada Carriles and on Orlando Bosch. They were both arrested in Venezuela. And then there was a long, complicated judicial process in which very little really happened. And then one of them was freed and came to the United States. President Bush, the first, brought him in, despite the complaints by the FBI and the Justice Department saying, “Don’t let this guy in. He’s a dangerous terrorist.” Bush ignored them and let him in.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of your film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. And this is that moment that the Cubana Airlines, with 73 passengers on board, is hit.
CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: Cubana 455.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, [inaudible].
CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: We have had explosion. We are descending immediately. We have a fire on board.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cubana 455, are you returning to the field?
CUBANA AIRLINES PILOT: This is Cubana 455. We are requesting immediately, immediately landing. Close the door! Close the door! It’s getting worse! Crash landing into the sea!
CBS EVENING NEWS: This is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. Nine days ago, a Cuban passenger jet en route from Barbados to Havana crashed into the sea following an onboard explosion. Seventy-three persons, 57 of them Cuban, were killed.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to and watching an excerpt of Saul Landau’s film, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. So, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles blow up this airliner, and they ultimately live freely in Miami.
SAUL LANDAU: Yes, and the United States had—and we know this now from declassified documents from the CIA and the FBI, that they had nailed them, that Posada had told a CIA official there that “Orlando has all the information. We’re going to get an airplane.” It’s there, right in the—and I think we put it on the screen. And the first thing they did was try to raise money off this event. And it occurred to me that this might have been, down deep, the real motivation for all this terrorism, because it didn’t really—I mean, how is blowing up an airplane going to change the government of Cuba? Or how does even placing a few bombs in hotels? Or trying to assassinate? The real fact is that after all of these terrorist acts, these guys go door to door and saying, “Hey, you know, you heard what we did lately, huh? And you, you got a nice store here.” And they raise money. So this is how they ended up making a living. Otherwise, it makes no sense doing any of the things they did.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, going on with Lawrence Wilkerson’s review of your film, the man who was the chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell, worked with him for years, Colonel Wilkerson. He talks about Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. He says, “Clearly shown and vividly documented was the fact that the United States sponsors terrorism. In Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch alone, there are overtones of Osama bin Laden and Aman al-Zawahiri, the nefarious leadership of al-Qa’ida. In the film, Carriles and Bosch as much as tell us this in their own words. Moreover, they seem to rejoice in it.”
SAUL LANDAU: Yes. Yeah, that’s who they were. That’s their vocation. And they ultimately got proud of it. You know, as—Osama bin Laden’s objective wasn’t to take power in the United States. He had another motive for bombing the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And I think these guys didn’t hope to take power in Cuba. They had another motive. And that is, to make a living.
AMY GOODMAN: There were over 600 assassination attempts on Fidel Castro’s life that the U.S. was involved with?
SAUL LANDAU: Well, they were—the United States government—or, the CIA was involved in lots—I don’t know how many, but according to a British film—they had pretty good documentation from the Cubans—there were 628 attempts on Castro’s life. The CIA was involved in more than half of them.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did they want Fidel Castro dead?
SAUL LANDAU: Well, I think, in the U.S. government, it was thought that as soon as Fidel was gone, the Cuban Revolution was gone, and they would get Cuba back. It would be back in their pocket as they had it before. I mean, if you look at Cuba before the revolution, it was an economic colony of the United States. And I think the U.S. government felt a sense of loss, a sense of humiliation almost. Who lost Cuba? I mean, this was a discussion way back in the 1960s. Who was it responsible for losing Cuba? And Eisenhower was blamed, and Kennedy was blamed. But the thought was, look at all those corporations that used to own the island—the sugar companies, King Ranch and other huge American corporations who had huge assets there. And they were all expropriated. Oil companies, Texaco.
AMY GOODMAN: They all worked with Batista, the former dictator.
SAUL LANDAU: Oh, Batista was a brutal dictator. He killed, according to the Cuban figures, 20,000 people over a period of five years and practiced routine torture. And he was supported by the U.S. government until quite late in the game.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did this scrappy group of insurgents—Fidel Castro, Che Guevara—how did they overthrow Batista?
SAUL LANDAU: Well, I think they—Castro and his group used a combination of guerrilla war which they fought from several mountains—that is, the Sierra Maestra and the Sierra Cristal, the two mountain ranges in the eastern province, in Oriente, in Cuba, and then there was another group fighting from the Escambray Mountains—and they tried to coordinate their activities with an urban guerrilla or urban, if you like, revolutionary group that was also causing the repressive forces to put a lot of attention and men into them. They were creating sabotage, propaganda. And Batista, by 1958, was an extremely unpopular leader. Having—because he had been a sergeant and not one of the old guard army people, he really wasn’t in bed with the old Cuban aristocrats and didn’t owe them any loyalty. He was in bed with the mafia. He was on good terms with them, for their gambling and the prostitution and all their stuff. So he didn’t feel any kinship with the upper middle class or the aristocracy, many of whose kids were being picked up by the cops and tortured or even killed. So he lost a lot of popularity. And when the revolutionaries won, they won with overwhelming popular support—that didn’t last, of course. As soon as the revolution showed that it was serious about class things and distributing wealth, the upper class moved out, and they moved to Miami. And this was pretty well completed by late 1960. The richest people in Cuba had left the island.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us who the Cuban Five are.
SAUL LANDAU: The Cuban Five were intelligence agents who were part of a larger web of intelligence group called Wasp. And 12 of them either got pleas or fled, and got away.
AMY GOODMAN: And they were charged with things like what?
SAUL LANDAU: They were charged with failing to register as foreign agents and false identity.
AMY GOODMAN: Has the U.S. ever done that?
SAUL LANDAU: The United States has never tried anybody for failing to register as a foreign agent, because Americans are doing that all over the world. And they don’t want to get arrested. They don’t want to set a precedent for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Generally, they’d deport people like that?
SAUL LANDAU: They deport people. They arrest them and say, “Go home.” And they expect that to happen if Americans are caught, let’s say, in a foreign country, in eastern Europe, say, having infiltrated some terrorist cell in Chechnya or wherever. This is what the—this is what this kind of intelligence is all about, and everybody understands it. False identification? Of course you have false ID, or else you’re going to get known. So these aren’t really serious charges. I mean, they do have, you know, legally, penalties that are associated with. But these guys were charged with heavier crimes. They were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder. And, you know, really—and these carried heavy sentences. And the judge—the judge went overboard. I mean, she gave Gerardo two life sentences plus 15 years—almost unheard of. And some of the sentences, by the way, were reversed by an appeals court, which said these sentences are ridiculous, and they lessened them. They forced the judge to resentence. And one of the Cuban Five, by the way, is now on parole in South Florida, but he is not allowed to travel outside of South Florida. Anybody else would simply be deported and sent back home.
AMY GOODMAN: The other three, outside of Gerardo, how many years do they still have to serve?
SAUL LANDAU: One of them has a life sentence. One will be out in about four, five years, and another in about eight or 10.
AMY GOODMAN: So, murderers and rapists get far more lenient sentences.
SAUL LANDAU: Yes. Yeah, these guys have gotten maximum—super-maximum sentences.
AMY GOODMAN: Saul Landau, is there any deal being made behind the scenes to free the Cuban Five in exchange for—who is Cuba holding that the U.S. would be interested in releasing?
SAUL LANDAU: Well, the Cubans caught a man named Alan Gross, who was working as a contractor for a company that was contracted with AID, the State Department. And their job, essentially, was to promote regime change in Cuba. And it says so in the legislation, and they got the money to do this. Alan’s job was to set up dissidents with super-sophisticated satellite communication systems that would work through satellite phones and laptops that were untrackable and impenetrable. And I really don’t think that he was trying to keep the Cubans from learning our secret matzo ball recipe. The excuse is, he’s innocent; all he was trying to do was help the Jewish community get better internet access. This is total nonsense.
AMY GOODMAN: That was being alleged.
SAUL LANDAU: Yes, and they’re still—I mean, Hillary Clinton is still saying this, that he’s innocent. Even his wife says now he was guilty.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
SAUL LANDAU: Well, Hillary says all he was trying to do was help the Jewish community get internet access. This is nonsense.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is the wife saying he’s guilty? Did he have an affair in prison?
SAUL LANDAU: No. His wife’s saying he’s guilty because, I think, she’s changing strategy. Alan Gross’s defense has been he’s innocent. Then came an article in the Associated Press by Desmond Butler, mid-February of this year. Somebody leaked to him his trip reports. That is, Alan had made—this was his fifth trip to Cuba. In each one, he details how he smuggled in illicit equipment using other Jews who were going down on religious missions. He had asked them to put little pieces of the equipment in their backpacks to get it through customs in Cuba, which he then reassembled. And he bought a SIM card, which made the system untrackable. In other words, these people could communicate with each other without Cuban counterintelligence finding out where they were. That’s why I said I don’t think it was just to protect our matzo ball recipe. This was something deeper. Alan had done this in Iraq, and he had done it in Afghanistan. So, he had a track record. Did he know what he was doing in terms of what the ultimate goal was? Who knows? I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s relevant. But he knew he was violating Cuban law. The Cubans got his laptop. They got his hard drive. They got his flash drive. Then they got all his equipment.
AMY GOODMAN: But then they follow him all through Cuba, so that they could track all the people he was talking to, before ultimately they arrested him when he was leaving at the airport.
SAUL LANDAU: Alan was picked up after the first agent he talked to. The first Cuban he talked to was a state security agent masquerading as a religious person. And that was it. He was picked up. He was picked up. And the Jewish community that he went to once immediately calls the cops on him. So Alan was identified, and the Cubans followed him everywhere he went and got a list of all the people he visited, and now will have all of his equipment to boot. So I think that something that’s possible that—how should I say it—reciprocal humanitarian gestures are now possible. The Cubans could free Alan Gross, and President Obama could free the Cuban Five.
AMY GOODMAN: Saul Landau, director of the new documentary, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. He’s made more than 45 films and written 14 books, many about Cuba.