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Seventh Prague Adventure of Mr/s XYZ at ISHLT 2012:
Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution

Tereza Martinu, MD
Duke University Medical Center


tereza martinuYou are sipping on the last drops of your coffee at Café Slavia. Your gaze keeps shifting up towards the green illusion in the large Absinthe Drinker painting by Viktor Oliva. After watching the opera Rusalka at the National Theater across the street, you decided to visit this historic café, well known for welcoming many celebrities over the years. Among those were poets Jiří Kolár and Jaroslav Seifert, musician Jiří Šlitr and, of course, the late Czech ex-president Václav Havel. Since you were already planning your ISHLT conference trip when the news of his death in December appeared on TV and the Internet, you have been eager to read all you could about Václav Havel. You think back to his amazing life story: A playwright and poet who spoke his mind during communism and went from being a dissident to president.

In many ways, Havel symbolizes the country's last six decades and embodies values of which the country is now probably most proud: intellect, freedom of mind, and peace. His mottos were "words are stronger than ten military divisions" and "truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred." Indeed, since the Second World War, many political changes in his country have been peaceful: peaceful resistance to the communist regime, the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Even though the communist government disliked the Havel family due to their affluence and politically colored past, and limited Václav's access to secondary education, Václav overcame this barrier by studying drama via correspondence. His early writings and plays quickly gained national and international acclaim in the 1960s. However, Havel's standing deteriorated during the Czech invasion by the Soviet Troops in 1968 when he did a live radio narrative for the resistance. Thereafter, Havel was banned from public and theater life, became a dissident, and his plays were performed clandestinely or abroad only.

Over the following two decades, Havel continued to oppose the communist regime. He is well known for his support of the psychedelic rock band Plastic People of the Universe (PPU). The PPU band was part of the Prague cultural underground between 1968 and 1989. After one of their concerts in 1976, the PPU band went on trial for non-conformism and for "organized disturbance of peace" due to their lyrics criticizing the government. Havel was present at their trial and publicly stated his opposition to their imprisonment. In response to this and other injustices, Havel, along with other dissidents, spearheaded the publication of the Charter 77 Manifesto. The manifesto criticized the regime for disrespecting human rights and not following the Czechoslovak Constitution; it was signed by 242 citizens.

The reaction of the government to the manifesto was quite harsh. The 242 signatories were made into a public example and punished in various ways: they lost their jobs, educational opportunities were denied to their children, their drivers' licenses were suspended, some were forced into exile, some were tried and imprisoned, and some were forced to collaborate with the communist secret service. The manifesto was banned and its ownership or readership became criminal. Havel's life thereafter was marked by multiple imprisonments, the longest being from 1979 to 1984, and constant questioning and surveillance by government forces.

"Thank you for your visit, Mr/s XYZ," says the waiter as he brings your credit card and receipt back to your table at Café Slavia. You walk out on the street Národní třída and head away from the Vltava River. This street was the very location of the student demonstrations that started on November 17th, 1989. You try to imagine the masses of students carrying flags and flowers, the police blockades, the peaceful demonstrators placing flowers onto police shields and chanting "we have bare hands" amidst the jingle of shaken keys. The jingling of keys was apparently a gesture to say "goodbye, it's time to leave" to the communist government.

You keep walking on the Národní třída all the way to Kaňkův palác, now Ceská advokátní komora (Czech Bar Association). In the walkway of the palace, you were hoping to take a picture of the memorial to the student demonstrations, decorated with waving hands making peace signs. You are a little disappointed to find out that the walkway closes at 6:00 PM. In November 1989, the demonstrations were followed by a weeklong strike of students and theaters. That's when Havel, along with other former members of Charter 77, founded the Civic Forum as a peaceful popular movement for reform. Multiple other demonstrations followed throughout Prague and Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) and multiple meetings took place between the government and members of the Civic Forum. Three tumultuous weeks led to the end of censorship on November 27th, the appointment of the first non-communist government on December 10th, and finally the election of Václav Havel to presidency on December 29th.

Although Havel is well liked abroad and was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, his presidency and political work at home was not easy. "Fixing" a country broken by over 40 years of communism was pretty much impossible and is still ongoing. Some of his peace-oriented and anti-conflict decisions were not liked by everyone. Nevertheless, he was re-elected twice and will remain one of the most popular Czech presidents in history. Among other achievements, at the time of his death, he was Chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation's International Council.

You continue your walk eastward on Národní třída, all the way to Václavské náměstí. The Národní trída has lived through the whole cycle, you think to yourself. It bore the 1989 demonstrations that marked the fall of communism and the birth of democratic Czechoslovakia and, a few months ago, saw Václav Havel's funeral procession decorated with thousands of candles in his honor. (Photo credit at right: Jupiterimages, Stock photo, Photos.com)

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.