Articulating a vision: Vaclav Havel at 70

Vaclav Havel, photo: CTK

Vaclav Havel, one of contemporary central Europe's best-known intellectuals is 70 years old. He was born on October 5th, 1936. A week of honours and celebrations in Prague will continue in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, on Friday, and in November all of Vaclav Havel's plays will be staged in New York City.

Paul Wilson
Vaclav Havel needs no introduction: he has been a key figure in the history of central Europe since the mid-1960s—as a playwright, a member of the Czechoslovak democratic opposition, and eventually as President of an independent Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. On the occasion of Vaclav Havel's 70th birthday, I spoke to Paul Wilson, his English-language translator and friend. On the phone from Heathcote, Ontario, Paul Wilson reflects on Vaclav Havel as a writer and politician:

"Havel's real strengths to my mind are his abilities as a writer and a speaker and a thinker. He certainly exercised these to the full as President, in writing his own speeches and in trying to create—through his speeches—a kind of coherent vision of what he wanted Czech society to be and how he wanted it to evolve, where he saw that its strengths were, and where he saw its weaknesses. I think that to the extent that his ambition was to articulate that vision, he was successful. I mean, there's no way that you can ignore his thinking on these points: it's there for all to see, it's on the record. He's written books about it, like Summer Meditations, his speeches have all been published, he gave his fireside chats every weekend from Lany, and he was constantly articulating what he thought about things. He has this phrase that he uses over and over again, which is "it's my job to say over and over again, what I think." And so he carried that role as an articulator into his position as President, and I think that you can say that he successfully articulated [his ideas].

Vaclav Havel,  photo: CTK
Havel as was a figurehead position, but because of who he was he had more influence than a normal figurehead would have, and there are certain gears that mesh. I mean, he appoints the prime minister, and he appoints the rectors of universities, and he appoints constitutional court judges and so on. So there is real power there, but I don't think that he had the power that he would have liked to have politically, to put his ideas into practice."

The front cover of this week's Respekt journal has the title 'The man who gave us back our history.' That is, Vaclav Havel who gave Czechs back their history. How do you react to this?

"[Laughs] Well, first of all it's a very grabby title. I don't know what they mean by it, but I suppose there's a certain truth in it. I don't think that Havel himself would ever claim to have been the sole restorer of history to the country, but I think that he represents a certain continuity with the old democratic capitalism that existed in the First Republic, just through his family connections. One of the remarkable things about Havel's thinking to me anyway, is that although he's never actually as an adult experienced anything like a democracy until he was in a position to help create it, his instincts are absolutely right. I mean his instincts about the electoral system are right, his instincts about what a democracy is and the interplay between a vibrant independent society and the political structures that rule it are absolutely spot-on. So that in a sense, you could say that by articulating his own vision, he was actually reconnecting with the past, but also trying to give Czech society a vision of where he thought they should be going."

Vaclav Havel,  photo: CTK
Since retiring from the Czech Presidency in early 2003, Vaclav Havel has found a role for himself consistent with who he was already in the 1960s: a human rights activist. Cuba has been a particular focus of Havel's, and Paul Wilson talks about why that is, and what Vaclav Havel's connection is to the island state so far away from the Czech Republic:

"A lot of Cuban dissidents who have managed to get out of the country have beaten a path to Havel's door and talked to him directly. Havel has been very active in supporting a public discussion about the future of Cuba, and if I can just be a little historical here, it goes back to something he told the American Congress in his first speech to them in February 1990. This was that at some point, the experience that we've had in eastern Europe under communism is not just something that we can forget, and we hope that some day we'll be able to give other countries the benefit of our experience with communism.

I think that in the case of Cuba—and Havel has other interests in other difficult states like Belarus, and Burma, and North Korea, and so on—but in the case of Cuba specifically, he and many other Czechs are trying to somehow articulate the experience that they have had. Not only living under communism which gives them an automatic sympathy with the Cuban people, but also to try to figure out what it is in their experience of transitioning, if you like, from communism to democracy, that might be useful for the Cubans because it will inevitably be a choice that they'll have to face. Castro will die at some point. Havel's message to the people in Miami was 'you've got to listen to the dissidents on the island,' but his message more recently has been that the time to start thinking about the transition is now, and when it does start to happen, it'll happen so fast that the more preparation you can make now, the better."

Whatever subject he chooses to tackle, whether democratic transitions in far-away lands or the need for constitutional reform at home in the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel still speaks clearly, with authority, and people listen to him as they have for decades.