Capitol Words a project of the Sunlight Foundation

  • and

Remembering Vaclav Havel

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin

legislator photo

Mr. President, today I rise to honor former Czech President and renowned human rights activist Vaclav Havel. Vaclav Havel died last month, and I was sad to note that the news of his death was overshadowed by not only the holidays but also by media coverage of Kim Jong Il's death. The irony--that one of the great leaders of the third wave of democracy, passed at virtually the same time as one of the century's most dangerous, repressive tyrants--is striking.

Eulogies to Havel from everyday Czechs, European and world leaders, and admirers across the globe have poured forth in the past month, and for me, some of the most touching have come from the Czech Romani community. The Roma community, which is often ostracized from and disenchanted with mainstream politics, embraced Havel as a leader and a friend. And indeed Emil Scuka, the Czech president of the International Romani Union, said ``Vaclav Havel was not afraid to publicly stand up for Romani people even though he knew he could lose a great deal politically by doing so because the public wouldn't like it. He never made such political calculations in advance . . . With the death of Vaclav Havel, all of us Romani people are losing a great defender, a fighter for freedom and human rights. We are losing the certainty that when things are at their worst, Vaclav Havel will help us. However, I believe his ideals, his ideas, and his philosophy will live on.''

I was also inspired by the eloquent tribute of Gabriela Hrabanova, a former advisor to the Czech government on Romani issues, who said ``Everyone has been writing about how this is the end of an era. I firmly hope that is not the case. The legacy of Vaclav Havel must remain with us, and the space for truth and love in society must continue to increase.''

Just a few days before his death, Havel was actively following protests in Moscow, and published an opinion in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta, and called the current Russian government a ``specific combination of old stereotypes and a new business-mafia environment.'' He encouraged Russian citizens to see that the current regime, which presents itself as democratic, is in fact not democratic at all. Exposing the truth of the repressive Communist regime lead to the victory of his peaceful Velvet Revolution, and Havel was convinced this experience could be replicated in Russia, if the citizens were committed.

I am not at all surprised by a report from Aung San Suu Kyi, who said she received a letter in the days following Havel's death from Havel himself. Suu Kyi said that Havel wrote from his deathbed that he was thinking of her and how the transitional experience from Czech Republic might prove useful to her in Burma's transition and her own quest for freedom and truth. Even in the last moments of his life, Havel was thinking about the imperiled human rights defenders around the world, from Russia to Burma, whom he could help.

And so it strikes me that in addition to the resolution honoring Havel, introduced by Senators Rubio and Lieberman, on which I am a proud cosponsor, we should also take this moment to rededicate ourselves to the principles so clearly visible in the life of this virtuous man. We must aid the Havels of this generation in their efforts to live in truth and freedom. We must do an even better job of prioritizing respect for human rights whenever we engage other governments, whether we are dealing with the transitional regime in Egypt, long-established rulers in Bahrain, newly elected leaders in Honduras, or strategic allies in Europe.

Vaclav Havel was a hero of the twentieth century, and I was very fortunate to have met him. I am also very proud of all that the Helsinki Commission and the United States did in Eastern Europe to support Havel and his friends in their quest to live in truth. We must strive to honor that commitment in the rest of the world, so that Havel's legacy, and our own, lives on in the twenty-first century.