Václav Havel’s “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,” President Barack Obama said today (right, with Havel), in a statement to a memorial meeting held at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.
“Like millions of others, I was inspired by his words and leadership, and was humbled to stand with the Czech people in a free and vibrant Hradcany Square as President,” Obama said, noting that Havel “continues to serve as a beacon to all those still struggling for freedom in our world today.”
NED president Carl Gershman (left) cited Iranian dissident Ladan Boroumand’s recollection of how Havel used the time dedicated to honoring him at a Capitol Hill tribute “to give visibility and support to obscure dissidents from around the world, those men and women known to no one but the security forces in their respective countries and, with a little bit of luck, to NED.”
Several such activists and analysts addressed the meeting, including Aung San Suu Kyi (via video message), the head of Burma’s National League for Democracy, who praised Havel as that rare creature who “combined his intellectual gifts with a warm heart and instinctive understanding.”
“After fifty years of totalitarian rule, the road to a pluralist society won’t be easy,” Havel told her in a letter she received just days after his passing that was “as warm and modest as the man himself,” she said.
His own country “was still not fully there,” Havel wrote, but he would “gladly share its transformational experience” to aid Burma’s transition.
His abiding concern for human rights meant that once in a position of authority himself he did not indulge in rancour or vengeance, but instead worked to being about reconciliation,” said the Dalai Lama in a message to the meeting.
He said that Havel established Forum 2000 with the specific purpose of bringing together people from differing cultures, backgrounds, religions and disciplines for mutual inspiration and instruction.
“This, it seems to me, is the most appropriate way to promote democracy in non-democratic countries” and to support respect for human rights and tolerance in emerging democracies, he wrote.
“It is fitting that this event is taking place today, on the 35th anniversary of the publication of the Charter 77, in which Václav Havel played such a major role,” said President Obama.
It is also appropriate that the memorial coincides with the feast of Epiphany, said Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.
Havel’s belief in ”the possibility of new beginnings” and conviction that “miracles can happen with sufficient determination, courage, humor and imagination” was the antithesis of what he called the “radical absence of choice, “homogenized identity” and “monolithic monochrome oneness” of totalitarian uniformity, she said.
Railing against the “horrors of ideological thinking,” he insisted on living “in truth,” Elshtain said, highlighting the pregnant possibilities of acting, even in the most repressive circumstances “as if…”
“We have now entered the tunnel at the end of the light,” he said, shortly after the Velvet Revolution. While motivated and sustained by his idealism, he never veered into utopianism and was always sensitive to the dilemmas, challenges and sheer messiness of post-transitional politics, Elshtain observed.
“By calling the communist government to account for its failure to abide by human rights obligations that it itself had undertaken, the Charter exposed what President Havel called the ‘hypocrisy and lies’ of the system and showed how individuals could change their society through peaceful dissent and by ‘living within the truth’,” Obama said in a statement read to the conference by Madeleine Albright (below, with Havel), former US Secretary of State and chairman of the National Democratic Institute.
It was almost 21 years to the day that she first met Havel, who had been elected President the week previously, as a member of an NDI delegation.
His eagerness to get on with consolidating the transition was evident when they began reviewing possible assistance, including advice on developing an electoral law. Havel jumped in immediately and said “Get your experts here on Friday.” Seeing their stunned reaction, he compromised and said, “OK, Monday it is.”
Havel “lived in that great and precarious Republic of Truth” where the apparently mundane, such as his insistence on personal responsibility, “gains poetic resonance,” said NED board member Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and executive director of Cultural Conversations at Johns Hopkins University.
Just as Saul Bellow pondered how Holocaust survivors could ever survive “the ordeal of freedom,” Havel feared newly enfranchised citizens succumbing to the “sleeping consciousness” and “atrophy of feeling” characteristic of materialist consumerism.
For democracy to survive, it must secure its “transcendental anchor” that is the only genuine, sustainable source of autonomy and self-respect, Nafisi said. His legacy is also a challenge: “What are we prepared to risk and re-learn in order to live in the truth?”
As the “precursor of a new liberation,” Havel helped bring about “the fall of a Wall that did not crush anyone but became a bridge of reconciliation,” said Oswaldo Paya (via video message), founder of Cuba’s Varela Project.
Havel and his colleagues won the “voice, rights and dignity” to which Cubans aspire and for which they will hold out instead of the “fraudulent change” currently peddled by the island’s Communist regime.
To China’s liberal intellectuals, democracy and human rights activists, “Havel speaks directly to us,” said Li Xiaorong. “We always felt that he knows intimately what a dissident writer like Liu Xiaobo faces as he or she criticizes a powerful authoritarian regime and tries to speak the truth.”
“How can we, like Havel, live in truth, letting love and truth conquer hatred and lies?” she said. “Havel is still speaking to us: He lives on, among us.”
The dissident-turned-president was similarly inspirational for celebrated Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the founder of the Ibn Khaldoun Center.
“In the darkest of hours in a cramped prison cell, figures like Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Aung Sun Su Kyi, provided me with unshakable faith that our struggle for freedom and democracy would ultimately triumph,” he said, in a message to the NED meeting.
The last year’s events confirm the potency of his message, demonstrating “the power of what masses of people with resolve can achieve.”
‘What came to be called the Arab Spring would not have come about without the inspiration and modeling of courage that Václav Havel represented for us in the Arab region,” said Ibrahim.
The Czechoslovak dissidents’ Charter 77 was not only a model for China’s Charter 08: it also inspired the Damascus Declaration that emerged from the last short-lived Arab Spring, said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.
Having spent time in the Czech Republic studying the country’s peaceful Velvet Revolution, the contrast with the struggle in Syria – which has cost some 6000 fatalities to date – is both sharp and poignant, but Havel’s legacy remains instructive for the country’s eventual democratic transition.
In a message to the meeting, former Slovak dissident Martin Butora cites a letter Havel wrote to Alexander Dubcek in 1969, on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion.
“Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance,” Havel wrote. “It can help people realize that it is always possible to stick with one’s ideals and have integrity; that there are values worth fighting for; and that there are leaders worth believing in.”
In this letter, Butora notes, Havel “inadvertently defined the blueprint for his attitude to life.”
It was such sentiments that no doubt prompted Havel to encourage Rebiyah Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, who recalled that he told her “never to give up hope even in the darkest hours.”
Havel “always saw through Communist propaganda,” she told the meeting, so his “literary representations of the absurd resonate strongly with Uyghurs and other minorities living under oppressive rule in China.”
Ethiopian democracy activist Birtukan Midekssa (right) felt a profound affinity with Havel after coming across his celebrated essay, the Power of the Powerless, as a political prisoner who had suffered long periods of solitary confinement.
Havel provided “a narrative of struggle” that that helped sustain her and a “vindication of suffering in a world of Realpolitik and Machiavellianism” that will inspire a new generation of democratic activism.
Uniquely Czech but with a universal soul, Havel was one of those few intellectuals who never took himself too seriously, said his friend William Luers, a former US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
“It is difficult for me to speak of Václav Havel in the past tense,” said former Polish dissident Adam Michnik.
“Russian dissidents were more widely known, the Polish opposition movement was bigger, but the goals and moral ethos of the dissident movement was most succinctly articulated by Havel,” he said.
A close acquaintance for 34 years, since representatives of Charter ’77 and KOR [the Workers’ Defense Committee] met on the Polish-Czechoslovak border (left), “Havel was among those who did not want to reconcile themselves with communism,” Michnik said, in a message to the meeting. “He was among those who organized active resistance and built the structures of an alternative life. In these structures people were free, though they lived in an enslaved society.”
Havel carried his moral convictions from opposition to office, making the transition from protest to politics that often proves difficult for dissidents and civil society groups.
“He was a politician who could demonstrate to what degree moral values could simultaneously be pragmatic,” said Michnik. “He brought to our contemporary politics — on the whole rather cynical and corrupted — the language of ethical behavior and demonstrated fidelity to his words by his actions.”
In his introduction to a collection of essays by Andrei Sakharov, Havel wrote that the celebrated scientist and former Soviet dissident’s writings “will inspire not only us – his contemporaries – but also generations of citizens to come, who cannot be indifferent to the fate and future of our planet.”
The same words ring true for Havel himself, the NED’s Gershman suggested, highlighting the public response to his inaugural speech cited in an on-line forum during a brief window of free expression on China’s internet
“For the last forty years your government has told you how great everything is and how many tons of steel you produce,” Havel said. ‘I know you did not vote me in to repeat such lies to you. Your country has been given back to you, the people.”
The speech attracted the most positive response from some 35,000 people voted on comments published by Netease, the vast majority of which praised Havel’s contribution to democracy and human rights.
“In keeping with Havel’s vision, let’s hope that China will be given back to the people, and Burma, Cuba, Iran, Belarus, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tibet, East Turkestan, even North Korea,” said Gershman. “There is much work to do to help bring happiness and glory to the dark corners of the world, as Havel did for his and other nations. “