Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel, R.I.P.

Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, has passed away at the age of 75. Havel was a man of courage and a true hero to all who love freedom around the world. May he rest in peace.


Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, hero of the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in his country in 1989, has died at the age of 75, his office said.

Havel, who served as head of state from 1989 to 2003, died in his sleep at dawn after a lengthy illness, his spokeswoman Sabina Tancevova said.

Despite soaring achievements as a playwright, anti-communist icon, president and most recently film director, he retained a modesty and bashfulness matching his fragile figure to his dying day.

"It's true that I often start rather adventurous projects although I'm no adventurer," the former Czech president said in a magazine interview published in February, 10 months before his death on Sunday aged 75.

A non-conformist playwright in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, rock fan and intellectual, Havel personified the Velvet Revolution which peacefully toppled Czechoslovakia's communist regime in December 1989.

The events turned him into "the star of the Czechoslovak opposition scene," as he himself recounted, and earned him a place in history books worldwide.

"I was seen as someone who had led his fellow citizens without pain to a beautiful victory over an incomparably stronger apparatus of power," he wrote.

Following the collapse of communism he was, in his own words, catapulted from one day to the next into the position of head of the state - just a few months after being released from a communist prison.

But, as president of post-communist Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and then of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003, Havel refuted all pretensions to power.

"Some people say that I fought for the presidency, that is nonsense. I never fought for anything," he wrote.

Born in Prague on 5 October, 1936, into a family that owned film studios and a large chunk of prime real estate in the capital, he was labelled a bourgeois capitalist and banned from studying by communist authorities in power since 1948.

With the family's properties gradually confiscated by the state, he took up a series of odd jobs, passed his high school exams thanks to evening courses, wrote, and finally launched himself in the theatre as a stagehand, lighting technician, administrator and finally an author and director.

Banned from theatres following the communist crackdown on the Prague Spring in 1968, Havel refused to emigrate, instead taking up another series of odd jobs.

He kept writing and became more deeply involved in the dissident movement, eventually drawing up Charter 77, a manifesto challenging the communists to live up to their international promises to respect human rights.

As the movement's leading force and spokesman, he was subject to constant harassment and was imprisoned from June 1979 to February 1983.

During that time he penned his "Letters to Olga," dedicated to his wife, which became an international bestseller.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia became the last country in Central Europe to sweep the communists from total power.

Propelled into power on a wave of popular fervour following the peaceful 1989 transition, Havel was then forced to accept the breakup of Czechoslovakia, which took effect 1 January, 1993.

He resigned as head of state in July 1992 to become president of the newly created Czech Republic.

Reduced by the constitution to play a largely honorary figurehead role, Havel supervised his country's democratic and economic transition including its membership of NATO in 1999 and entry into the European Union in 2004.

After his wife Olga died, Havel, who once described himself as "a dreamer, romantic, and a big mouth," married actress Dagmar Veskrnova, 20 years his junior.

When his mandate expired in 2003, Havel, more popular abroad than at home, devoted himself to human rights.

He frequently supported Cuban and Chinese dissidents as well as the democratic opposition in Belarus, the fight against the Myanmar military junta and the opposition to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

"The post-presidential life resembles the life of a president, but it's harder because you can be a president for several years but you are an ex-president until you die. Which brings about numerous obligations," he said.

Despite his modesty, the author of 18 theatre plays and several books acknowledged in his memoirs that he had "an extraordinary destiny."

"I wonder if all that - the fact that a man as calm as myself had such an adventurous existence - is due to the fact that life ... is an incredible miracle," he said.