VACLAV HAVEL, CZECHOSLOVAKIA’S DISSIDENT-TURNED-PRESIDENT, IS HAILED AS A HERO IN NORTH AMERICA
Václav Havel, whose metamorphosis from political prisoner to Czechoslovakia’s president is a striking symbol of the remarkable changes taking place in Eastern Europe, prefers jeans and open-neck shirts to suits and ties. But the diminutive playwright wore more formal clothing for his first official visit to North America last week—and his discomfort was readily apparent. Speaking to Havel at the White House, President George Bush said: “For years, as a dissident, subject to arrest and imprisonment at any time, you could never go out without your toothbrush in your pocket. Now, as president, you can never go out without one of these neckties.”
Even in the pinstripes of diplomacy, Havel presented a rumpled figure somewhat bemused by his sudden change of fortune. But his wry humor and unassuming demeanor captivated his hosts. During the Canadian portion of his visit, which began on Feb. 18, Havel met Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and urged Czechoslovakian émigrés to go home. Audiences in Ottawa and Toronto wept and shouted “Long live Havel” as he described the “velvet revolution” that had toppled the Communist regime in Prague. Flying to Washington on Feb. 19, Havel received a hero’s welcome from Bush and, flanked by Vice-President Dan Quayle and House Speaker Thomas Foley, won five standing ovations from Congress.
Confessing that he found it “very strange indeed” to be president of a country where he had been arrested only four months previously, Havel said that he was not asking for American aid. But legislators proposed expanding the U.S. aid program begun last year for Poland and Hungary to include Czechoslovakia and other countries emerging from Soviet domination. Bush also promised most-favored-nation trading status for Prague and said that he would back its bid for readmission to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
In Canada, Havel did not receive any specific offers of assistance, beyond an economic and cultural relations agreement signed in Montreal by his prime minister, Marian Caifa, and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa. He spent private time with old friends and Czechoslovakian émigrés. Among them were Toronto writer Josef Skvorecky and his wife, Zdena, who founded a publishing house, Sixty-eight Publishers, after their defection from Czechoslovakia following the 1968 Soviet invasion. They helped keep Havel’s name alive by printing his works in Canada while he languished in jail for his human rights activities.
The 53-year-old Havel has fought the abuses of communism for two decades. He has been in and out of prisons, spending a total of more than five years behind bars. Asked by reporters in Prague what had best prepared him for the job of president, Havel replied: “Jail. In the first place, it taught me not to be surprised by anything. Second, it cultivated in me some instincts which I need for this office. Third, it facilitates for me the solving of many problems we have to deal with, such as the state security and the dark forces in our country.”
Havel was born in Prague, where his father was a wealthy building contractor and his uncle owned the Barrandov studios, the dominant film-maker in Czechoslovakia. After the Communist takeover in 1948, Havel’s upper-middle-class background made him suspect, and officials refused to allow him to attend university. He drove a taxi and started writing—his first critical essays were published when he was 19. He then found a job as a stagehand in a theatre and began to write plays about the suffocating life under communism. His first two productions, The Garden Party and The Memorandum, attracted attention abroad, leading to his first trip to the United States for an off-Broadway opening in 1968.
After the Soviet invasion in August of that year, Havel spoke out against President Gustáv Husák. In 1977, Havel and other dissidents formed a human rights organization, Charter 77, which led to a prison sentence. Following his release, he helped to found the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted in 1978, earning him a 3 1/2-year prison term. The letters he wrote to his wife during those years were later published in Toronto as Letters to Olga.
Because of his dissident activities, Havel was forced to work as a laborer in a brewery. But, although his plays were banned in Czechoslovakia, the government allowed him to collect foreign royalties in hard currency and buy luxuries unavailable to most of his countrymen. He lived in a comfortable apartment in Prague and owned a Mercedes-Benz. The government pressured him to emigrate, but he refused, even declining to go abroad to accept drama prizes because of concern that he would not be allowed back into his native country.
Havel spent another four months in prison early last year for trying to place a wreath at the grave of Jan Palach, a student who burned himself to death in protest after the 1968 invasion. In October, Havel was detained again on the eve of anticipated protests against the faltering Communist regime. But it resigned soon afterward, and the newly released Havel was unanimously elected president of the Czechoslovakian legislature on Dec. 29. Giddied by what he called “this curious passage from jail to the castle,” Havel indicated that he did not want to stay in office after June elections. “I have a better profession,” he said.
But on his visit to North America last week, the playwright confessed that he might accept another presidential term “if I were really certain that it is unavoidable.” In Ottawa and again in Toronto, where Havel addressed Czech and Slovak émigrés, he heard echoes of an ethnic rivalry that has been dormant in his own country. Asked if he might adopt Canada’s custom of duplicating services in both official languages to satisfy Czechs and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia, the president shot back: “We believe in progress, but not in luxury.” His answer provoked laughter and crashing applause. Later, lunching with Ontario Premier David Peterson and federal Trade Minister John Crosbie, Havel joked about Canada’s austerity budget: “I’ll limit myself to the soup so the premier will have some money left.”
In a more serious vein two days later in Washington, Havel told Congress that the best way it could aid his country was to “help the Soviet Union on its irreversible but immensely complicated road to democracy.” The sooner the Soviet Union achieves political pluralism and a market economy, he said, “the better it will be not just for Czechs and Slovaks, but for the whole world.” And while he acknowledged that the presence of NATO troops was still necessary to ensure stability, he added, “Sooner or later, Europe must recover and decide for itself how many of those soldiers it needs.” Havel ended his U.S. visit with a trip to New York City and another hectic official schedule. But the playwright-president took a night off to walk the streets of lower Manhattan, where he was finally able to take off his tie.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.