Havel, leader of “Velvet Revolution”, dies

PRAGUE,  (Reuters) – Vaclav Havel, a dissident  playwright jailed by Communists who became Czech president and a  symbol of peace and freedom after leading the bloodless “Velvet  Revolution”, died at 75 yesterday.

Vaclav Havel

The former chain smoker died at his country home in  Hradecek, north of Prague, of a long respiratory illness after  surviving operations for lung cancer and a burst intestine in  the late 1990s that left him frail for more than a decade.

The diminutive playwright, who invited the Rolling Stones to  medieval Prague castle, took Bill Clinton to a Prague jazz club  to play saxophone and was a friend of the Dalai Lama, rose to  fame after facing down Prague’s communist regime.

“His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire,  exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that  moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon,” U.S.  President Barack Obama said in a statement.

“He played a seminal role in the Velvet Revolution that won  his people their freedom and inspired generations to reach for  self-determination and dignity in all parts of the world.”

His plays were banned for two decades and he was thrown into  prison several times after launching Charter 77, a manifesto  demanding the communist government adhere to international  standards for human rights.    “I am extremely moved,” an emotional Prime Minister Petr  Necas told Czech Television when told of Havel’s death.

“He was a symbol and the face of our republic, and he is one  of the most prominent figures of the politics of the last and  the start of this century. His departure is a huge loss. He  still had a lot to say in political and social life.”

Just six months after completing his last jail sentence,  Havel led hundreds of thousands of protesters in Prague’s  cobblestone streets in a peaceful uprising in November 1989 that  ended Soviet-backed rule. Just over a month later, he was  installed as president in Prague Castle.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter: “Vaclav  Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice  for freedom paved the way for a Europe whole and free.”

RELUCTANT PRESIDENT    

Havel became a symbol of peaceful transition to democracy  and allowed the small country of 10 million to punch well above  its weight in international politics.

“Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred” was a slogan  from Havel that Czechs remember from the “Velvet Revolution”  days.

In later years, that slogan was often quoted in sarcasm as  Czechs’ initial enthusiasm towards free market democracy  collided with the reality of economic reforms and corrupt  politics.

Havel lost some of his allure in the later years of his time  at the castle. As president-philosopher, he struggled to uphold  morality in a tumultuous era of economic transformation and  murky business deals.

“He did not want to be a president,” said Petruska Sustrova,  a prominent Czech dissident and one of the first to sign Charter  77. “Ideally, he wanted to sit in a pub and reconcile  quarrels. He was not very keen to enter politics, he thought it  would cut him off from the normal world.”

Two soldiers stood to attention beside a picture of Havel at  the castle in Prague as scores of mourners quietly lit candles  and paid their respects.

Marek Kraus took part in the 1989 protests. He said he would  always remember Havel’s 1990 New Year’s speech when he told the  Czechs that, unlike the communists, he would not lie to them.

“We were part of the revolution,” said Kraus. “He was a very  important person for us. We didn’t know then what the future  would be.”

Born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor, Havel  was denied a good education after the communists seized power in  1948 and stripped the family of its wealth.

Despite having no higher degree, he began writing literary  criticism in 1955. The first of his absurdist plays, whose  characters often struggled to communicate in the empty language  of communist-era rhetoric, debuted in 1963 in a more liberal era  that was crushed by tanks in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion.

Havel’s plays then disappeared in censors’ vaults, and the  author was forced into menial jobs such as rolling beer barrels.

 STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL     

That changed when Havel moved to the castle, a building he  found so big that he and his staff used scooters to get around,  an illustration of the euphoria of many newly free Czechs.

But he struggled to uphold his ideals. Dismayed at the  looming breakup of Czechoslovakia, he quit as president in 1992,  but soon became leader of the newly created Czech Republic.

Much of his two terms was also cast as a struggle for the  soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav  Klaus, who eventually replaced Havel as president in 2003.

When Klaus was prime minister, Havel launched a stinging  attack against him, which many thought was a step too far.

Human rights stayed high on his agenda, as did anxiety about  the environment and the pursuit of moral values in the  globalising world, and he was nominated several times for the  Nobel Peace Prize.

“He was a great and well-deserving man and will be greatly  missed. May he rest in peace,” said Polish dissident leader Lech  Walesa, himself a Nobel laureate. “He certainly deserved a Nobel  Peace Prize, but in this world not everything is just. He was  above all a theoretician who fought with the word and pen.”

He repeatedly irked Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai  Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, most recently this  month. He also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won  the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on Havel’s nomination.

“I spent a few years in prison, but perhaps I would be there  three times as long if there were not for international  solidarity,” Havel said at a seminar on Myanmar in late 2007.

Havel returned to writing, and published a new play,  “Leaving”, which won rave reviews and premiered in 2008 and was  later turned into a film.

When asked in a magazine interview that year if he wanted to  be remembered as a politician or playwright, he said:     “I  would like it to say that (he) was a playwright who acted as a  citizen, and thanks to that he later spent a part of his life in  a political position.”

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