William Harter: Lobbying for Americans’ rights abroad


William Harter came to the Czech capital in 1990 to work as Procter & Gamble’s man in Prague. He was one of the founders and first president of the American Chamber of Commerce in what was then Czechoslovakia. In more recent years, Mr Harter has retired and dedicated a great deal of his time to the Prague chapter of AARO – the Association of American Residents Overseas. He’s been the president of the Prague chapter of the organization now for the past six years. I met William Harter for a cup of coffee in downtown Prague, to ask him more about AARO’s activities:

“AARO started in 1973 in Paris, and it was formed to represent the interests of American citizens who had decided to live for a long period of time overseas. The expats who were living overseas often felt they were either forgotten, or, to some extent, somewhat mistreated, by not living in the homeland. The chapter here in Prague started in 1993, so we’re celebrating our 15th anniversary in a few months, and, after the Paris base, it’s the second largest AARO chapter in existence.”

You said it was to represent the rights of American citizens living abroad, because sometimes they are either mistreated or forgotten about, what do you mean by that? Is it double taxation that you are talking about?

“That’s a good example. The issues that would fit into this category of lack of, or weak, representation would be taxation, and voting – not only registering to vote, but even the notion in the past of whether you should have the right to vote if you weren’t living in the US, even if you were a citizen.”

So is AARO in effect a lobby, and does it have a presence in Washington, and can it exert pressure there?

“It is a lobby, it’s a lobby, unfortunately, with very limited resources. And not the kind of lobby that is commonly making the press. We have volunteers who are often expats who have returned and who are living in the Washington area, and who continue to be active members of overseas chapters of American expat organizations like AARO and others. These people volunteer their time to help us with lobbying. Our main lobbying event is once a year, typically in May or June, when AARO, along with four or five other American expatriate organizations, has an Americans overseas week in Washington DC, where for five days, approximately 30 Americans come in from overseas, from as far away as Hong Kong and Dubai - as well as from Europe - and visit congressmen and other important government officials, whom we believe may be helpful with our issues.”

Having been president of AARO here in Prague for the last six years, do you have one thing that you think of as your biggest success, or one thing you are happiest to have done for the organization during this period?

“I’m pleased that unlike many organizations, we’ve been able to hold our membership fairly stable. The honeymoon kind of situation of the early 1990s of course has disappeared in Prague in general. And so with it perhaps, like perhaps after honeymoons, some of the enthusiasm that some of the expats felt in the early 1990s is starting to wane a bit. And so the challenge of all expat organizations, I believe, in Prague or in the Czech Republic, or in Central Europe, is trying to maintain membership and enthusiasm and reason to be, as the countries become more and more typical of other European countries.”

When you were talking a minute ago you talked about a ‘honeymoon period’ in Prague. What did you mean by that?

“Well, it’s a very dangerous statement that I made, but now that I have made it, I guess I need to explain it. When I first arrived in the spring of 1990, there was an incredible level of enthusiasm everywhere - led in my opinion by President Havel - for the new beginning, for lack of a better expression. That’s what I mean by honeymoon. It was a phase where the country thought, correctly, that it had left a very dark chapter behind, one which had gone on for some 45 years. And it was kind of an energy level, on everyone’s part. The government and the newly arrived visitors all felt that the sky was the limit. As the day to day life and the burdens of simple things, like getting a new telephone line, or maybe even writing a new constitution, hit everyone, the work part of the relationship took over, and perhaps over the years, some of that shiny enthusiasm has diminished and dulled a bit.”

To change the tone a bit and move onto a more personal note, can you tell me why you decided to come to Prague? Was it work that sent you or love that brought you?

“I’m afraid it was much simpler than that. In the spring of 1990, which was, as you know, only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, many large consumer-goods companies were looking at the markets of the former Eastern Bloc and noticing that there were some 350 million consumers there, who were probably going to need the same goods sooner or later as people were using in western countries. So I was offered the opportunity to come as first employee on the ground by Procter & Gamble. And I jumped at it, because the notion that in the company that I worked for that was approaching 150 years old - the notion of being the first employee for a company that big anywhere was so fascinating that in my opinion nobody in their right mind could turn that down.

“It was kind of like somebody saying to a car mechanic who had spent his whole life only changing the oil and the filter of existing cars ‘we’d like you to build a car from scratch’. I would hazard a guess that very few oil and filter-change mechanics, who had never done anything else except that, would not jump at the opportunity to design a car from scratch.”

As an American who had been to Western Europe, and indeed lived there for a time, before, was it not still a massive shock to come and live in the former Eastern Bloc, and what were the things that kind of shocked or startled you the most?

“Well it was very different, especially, I need to emphasise, the first couple of years. Things moved quickly, but nothing can move overnight. And so the first roughly two years here, we didn’t have dramatic progress. And, you know, it was dark in the winter. Most of downtown Prague was heated by coal, and not by gas, and so in the winter during the heating season the soot was everywhere. I would argue the reason that most Czechs still take off their shoes when they get home before they step on a carpet was driven by walking around in the winter with coal-soot on their shoes which was hard to get off. That is my best guess. That has not been researched by me.”