Cuba after Fidel:
An Evening with Saul Landau

By Gar Smith /
January 30, 2007

Emmy-award winning filmmaker, author, and activist Saul Landau has retired from his seat at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has authored more than 10 books (including, "Assassination on Embassy Row," "The Presumptive Empire" and, most recently, "A Bush & Botox World."). He has produced more than 40 prizewinning, politically charged films including, "Cuba and Fidel," "Conversations with Allende," "Target Nicaragua" and "Iraq: Voices from the Streets." He has just finished his latest documentary, a film about Mexico entitled "We Don't Play Golf Here Anymore."

In early January, Landau settled into a chair on the small stage of La Pena, a progressive neighborhood restaurant/performance space in Berkeley, California. For the next two hours, he engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with Karen Wald, an American reporter who has specialized in reporting on Cuba.

Landau chose to begin the discussion with a reference to the Middle East. He reminded the audience that, although you wouldn't know it from US media coverage, "60 people dying in Gaza every day." Landau was particularly outraged that, when Israel requested a supply of "wide blast bombs," the US promptly shipped them.

Landau confessed that he has made, "I dunno, 80, 100 trips to Cuba." But his latest foray was particularly notable because he served as guide for novelist/polemicist Gore Vidal who, at the age of 81, was making his first visit to the island. Fidel Castro's illness was a disappointment since both men had reportedly been looking forward to meeting and sitting down for a "nice 4-hour chat."

Recalling the sojourn with Vidal, Landau cited his friend's take on the "War on Terror." "Declaring a War on Terror," Vidal harrumphed, "makes as much sense as declaring a War on Dandruff."

While visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Cuba, reporters mobbed Vidal, peppering him with questions about George W. Bush. Throughout the trip, Vidal referred to Bush as "our little President." This was dutifully (and gleefully) translated in the Cuban media as "nuestro presidentito."

Retired SF politician John Burton was also in the entourage. During a meeting with an unnamed US representative on the island, Burton pointed out that both Vietnam and China are, like Cuba, one-party Communist countries but, unlike Cuba, they enjoy normalized relations with the US. Burton also observed that both countries were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of US soldiers in Vietnam and Korea. "So," Burton demanded, "what did the Cubans do to us?"

"Well," the US official replied, "Cuba jails dissidents."

"So? Answer my question," Burton replied.

"Well," the official offered, "There aren't free elections."

"So you're not going to answer my $%*!@ question?" Burton hollered, storming out.

Vidal turned to Landau and smiled: "Ah! My kind of politician. Unfortunately, out of office."

The Price of Disobedience
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Credit: Photo by Saul Landau
The incident served to underline a critical historical truth. As Landau explained, the US is an empire and "empires cannot tolerate disobedience. Cuba is to be punished for being disobedient. That's what Empires do -- punish."

Only a few countries have stood up successfully to US power and "humiliated" Washington. Those nations were Iran, Vietnam, Cuba and (recently) Venezuela.

Official US policy has been to "punish Fidel." Asked if this policy been effective, Landau just laughed: "As far as I know, Fidel's never missed a meal -- or a conjugal opportunity."

Landau, who has known Castro for many decades, said he still marvels that "when Fidel enters a room, a wind enters with him. I can't explain it."

It's not just a matter of charisma, Landau observed. After all, charisma is a gift that is shared by both televangelists and Bill Clinton. "With Fidel, however," Landau explains, "it's charisma plus content." And that's what makes the kind of difference that can mobilize a movement and change world history.

Landau quoted Oliver Stone who, after spending weeks with the Cuban leader in the course of profiling him for a movie, concluded: "Too bad he wasn't born in the United States -- so he could have become president."

Unlike most US politicians, Landau says of Fidel: "I never hear him utter a lie. For sure, there were times when he wouldn't tell the whole truth, but I never knew him to lie. Unlike Bush."

Landau ticked off the accomplishments of the Cuban revolution -- one of the most literate countries on Earth; an unemployment rate below 2%; free schooling and universal health care; a rate of child mortality (5.3 per 1000) that is second lowest in the world, behind Canada. (The US trails significantly.) And, thanks to a national reforestation effort, Cuba has nearly doubled the size of its forests which today cover 24 percent of the island nation.

As to the question of "Cuba after Fidel," Landau admitted that Castro's brother, Raul, while a competent administrator, lacks Fidel's nearly superhuman talents and energy. Cuba needs new blood and a new generation of leaders. Certainly, the passing of Fidel will be like a cloud passing over the sun but "even when there is an eclipse of the sun, the sun always re-emerges."

Havana and Washington
Having watched the evolution of the Cuban experiment over the years, Landau is an honest observer of Cuban reality and some of his criticism is surprisingly harsh.

"Havana is a city of parasites," Landau says. "They consume but they don't produce anything that brings in foreign currency." Today's Cuban youth "want sparkly things." They see the US as a paradise of sports cars and tech-toys where they can make lots of money without working very hard.

Corruption and bureaucracy are still major problems in Cuba but, in fairness, both predate the Revolution. If you need to get official paperwork approved, it can take from "three days to three months" to get a bureaucrat's signature. "Two entire feature films have been made on the topic of Cuba's bureaucracy," Landau said. "That's how bad it is."

Asked if the biggest threat to Cuba was a US invasion, Landau replied that the biggest challenge would be an end to the US embargo, because it would unleash a torrent of US cash that would flood the Cuban economy.

Can Cuba survive a tide of US capitalism? Landau simple smiled and replied: "We'll just have to see."

There were three reasons for the US embargo, Landau reminded the audience. The US demanded that Cuba (1) stop receiving Soviet military aid, (2) stop supporting revolution abroad, and (3) compensate US businesses for property seized by the revolution. All these demands have been met, yet the embargo continues.

Landau said "the US is the master of moving goalposts." And he proceeded to give a stunning example from the dark backrooms of history's closet.

Landau cited an August 1961 meeting between Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and President John Kennedy's US representative Dick Goodwin. After an eight-hour talk, Che told the White House representative that Cuba was prepared to meet all three US demands.

When Goodwin returned to Washington, he related the good news to Kennedy. JFK paused and replied: "It sounds like weakness. Let's turn up the heat."

It was only after Kennedy launched covert terrorist attacks against Cuba that Fidel accepted Russia's offer of missiles.

GAS and the GOP
Asked about the small hub of Fidel-hating militants who seem to wield disproportionate political clout in Washington, Landau confided that he had his own term for "the aging anti-Castro Miami Mafia." He refers to them as GAS -- for "Geezers' Assassination Squad." Despite their advanced years, Landau chuckled, they still like to talk up mischief "between visits to their proctologists offices."

Popular wisdom holds that the "Cuban vote" helped prevent Al Gore from winning in Florida. In truth, Landau pointed out, "there aren't enough Cubans in Florida to make such a difference." What DID make a difference, Landau charged, was the presence of armed anti-Castro Cubans who showed up at polling stations and intimidated poll workers into halting the recount, thereby creating a delay that helped throw the election into the chambers of the US Supreme Court.

Landau criticized Democratic Sen. Harry Reid for issuing a press release proclaiming that he was looking forward to the death of Fidel Castro. The press release called for "not just the end of Fidel but the end of Castroism." Which, Landau clarified, means an end to Cuba's socialist revolution.

During his stay in Cuba, a US official suggested to Landau and Vidal that Cubans would "welcome the change." Landau was incredulous.

He challenged the US rep: "They would want to give up free housing and pay exorbitant rents? They would want to give up free education through college and wind up with debts for college loans? Do you think Cubans are crazy?"

When the interviewer asked Landau to access different regimes in Washington, he remarked on the difference between Bill Clinton and sometime near-comatose Ronald Reagan. In a response that prompted one of the loudest laughs of the evening, Landau said he now looks wistfully back at the Reagan years "when sleeping with the president meant attending a cabinet meeting."

US Terrorism & the Cuban Five
Returning to the so-called War on Terror, Landau insisted that, in its modern incarnation, "state terrorism began "when the US started covert attacks on Cuba." Those attacks included support for a string of deadly bombings that targeted hotels and other tourist sites in Cuba. Long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US continues its plots against "the Castro Regime." Under such circumstances, it would only seem practical that Havana would seek to infiltrate the Miami-base terrorist community.

The team of secret agents that Havana dispatched to Florida to keep watch on these plots, subsequently became known (after their well-hyped arrests) as the Cuban Five.

When the Cuban Five infiltrated Miami terrorist groups to get intelligence on planned attacks. Landau reflected, "they were doing the work the FBI should have been doing." Again turning a new page in the book of little-known US history, Landau revealed how the author Garcia Marquez, acting as an intermediary, had send a personal message to Bill Clinton providing information on Miami-based terrorist plots against Cuba that had been dug up by members of the Cuban Five.

The FBI was duly alerted but their response was somewhat unexpected. Instead of arresting the terror ring the Cubans had uncovered, the FBI arrested the five undercover informants.

"Ordinarily, in such a case, these people would be charged with 'failing to register as a foreign agent,' which carries a maximum 18 month jail sentence," Landau said. Instead, the Cuban Five were charged with "espionage" using weak or trumped-up evidence. "These people were the anti-terrorists," Landau emphasized.

Landau dismissed speculation that the CIA had foreknowledge of the Washington, DC car-bomb blast that killed two of his friends -- IPS colleagues Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffit. Letilier was a former Chilean official who served the democratically elected administration of Socialist President Salvador Allende." Top intelligence officials in the US-backed junta that overthrew Allende in a bloody coup, were eventually accused of the assassinations.

Suspicions linger that the US CIA must have had foreknowledge of the plot. Landau, for one, is unconvinced. "Why would the CIA have risked planting a bomb 1.5 miles from the White House?" he asked. "What if Betty Ford had been taking one of her drunken, late-night strolls!"

Landau ended the discussion with a plea for political action on two fronts: First, he called on the audience to demand that Congress act to drop the Travel Ban that prevents US citizens from freely traveling to Cuba. "It's un-American," Landau observed, adding that the new Democrat majority in Washington might attach such a provision to a veto-proof omnibus spending bill.

His last request was to insist for justice in the case of the Cuban Five. He called their jailing "an outrage" and argued that their plight should be of concern to anyone who honors justice and human rights.

[For more information, contact: Casa Cuba, 6501 Telegraph (65th & Alcatraz)].

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