This 2010 Institute for Policy Studies photo shows award-winning documentary filmmaker Saul Landau, who passed away on Monday, September 9, 2013 after a two-year battle with bladder cancer. He was 77. (AP Photo/Institute for Policy Studies)
Saul Landau changed my life, when I was a high school student. He passed away on September 9 at 77. I will never forget him.
I had my first real conversation with him over dinner at a restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, DC, almost a decade ago. There were five of us: Saul, the then–Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Álvarez and his son Nano, my father and I.
I was only a home-schooled high school student then. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or what I would study in college, if anything. Saul and my father were good friends, having met in 1976. They would meet and talk together with Orlando Letelier, the former Foreign Minister of Chile who later that same year was assassinated by order of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on Embassy Row in Washington, not far from Dupont Circle.
The restaurant where we met had soft warm lighting that made the evening seem particularly intimate. Saul regaled us with anecdotes about his experiences in Latin America and around the world, sharing in particular his obsession with uncovering the truth behind the murder of his close friend, Letelier. I learned how his investigation, culminating in the groundbreaking book Assasination on Embassy Row, enabled him to expose the international hit squad comprised of right-wing Cuban-American terrorists under the leadership of American Michael Townley that had been responsible for murdering Letelier in cold blood, as he drove by the Chilean Embassy on Embassy Row.
Then, casually, Saul mentioned that he was in town giving a course at American University on revolutions in the twentieth century. I can’t remember if he was the first to propose it or if he simply and jovially went along, but soon he welcomed the idea of both Nano and I auditing the class. The ambassador’s son ended up unable to attend because of his own high school classes. For once, my homeschooling schedule proved to be a boon.
Although classes had already begun several weeks before, I jumped in with relish, fused with a healthy dose of insecurity. He began my first day by recounting the Guatemalan Revolution of the 1940’s and its demise by a US masterminded coup in 1954, which installed a cruel military dictatorship. Through my father, I was already familiar with these stories, but Saul brought them alive with the authority, erudition and anecdotal experiences that characterized his classes.
His classes were never the hierarchical and formal lectures that have been the torture of university students since time immemorial. Sometimes he would show a documentary, sometimes lecture, but always include as a central part of each class the chance to debate, to see where his students were and what they thought. He even had the good humor and indulgence to allow me to ask questions in what I later learned was actually a graduate course.
On Saul’s recommendation, and as part of the class, I bought John Dinges’ The Condor Years and began the path that years later would culminate in an undergraduate degree in History, with an emphasis on US-Cuba diplomatic relations.
Saul helped ignite a political awareness and a passion for history in me.
The last time I saw Saul was in Cuba a few months ago. I was coming back from lunch with American University Professor Phil Brenner at the old Hotel Presidente in Havana when Brenner saw him and screamed, “Saul!” After a deep embrace between the two, Phil turned to me and with joy in his eyes asked “Do you know him? This man is my brother.” Saul merely smiled.
Through his highly productive life, his passion and dedication to truth and justice was expressed in books and documentaries, countless magazine articles, includuing many for The Nation, grassroots rallies and university classrooms. Above all, he was an educator. Patiently, in that pristine and clear logic that was always characteristic of him and with his unique and ever present sense of humor, he showed us the duplicity of American foreign policy toward the Third World.
Saul awakened my political consciousness. He called us all to thought, gave an example to emulate in his fights for justice and left his mark forever. He survives through us in the decisions we make. We’ll try and not let him down.