CubaBrief: Remembering Václav Havel on the 12th anniversary of his passing, and his solidarity with free Cubans

Václav Havel October 5, 1936 – December 18, 2011

Václav Havel passed away twelve years ago this week, on December 18, 2011, and his nonviolent resistance and dedication to truth in successfully resisting totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia remain powerful legacies and examples that are relevant today. In 2002, President Vaclav Havel addressed the Cuban people and offered words that should be heeded now and in the future:

“Our world, as a whole, is not in the best of shape and the direction it is headed in may well be quite ambivalent. But this does not mean that we are permitted to give up on free and cultivated thinking and to replace it with a set of utopian clichés. That would not make the world a better place, it would only make it worse. On the contrary, it means that we must do more for our own freedom, and that of others.”

Frank Calzon in his OpEd, “Remembering a champion of freedom” published in the Miami Herald on Sept 13, 2012 wrote about how Havel championed the cause of Cuban freedom.

“After becoming president Havel insisted that, just as the Czechs had been helped by the democratic world, they lend their voices to the cries for help from other oppressed people in Burma, Tibet, North Korea, China, and Cuba. He welcomed to Prague such Cuban dissidents as Oswaldo Payá, Raúll Rivero, Carlos Franqui and the Ladies in White. He founded the International Committee to Promote Democracy in Cuba bringing together many democratic leaders, including  former Chilean President Patricio Aylwin, the democratically elected president who followed Gen. Augusto Pinochet. At a private dinner in Washington, Havel assured me of his support for Cuba’s freedom “no matter how many years it would take.” He knew the importance of symbols and the power of the word: In a video made for distribution around the world he advised tourists enjoying Cuban beaches to remember that there are political prisoners on the island.”

The subjects Václav Havel raised, fought and advocated for were serious and solemn, but at the same time he had a great sense of humor. He also understood that humor is powerful, and should not to be underestimated. He drove this home in a video he made in solidarity with Cuban political prisoners in 2006, in which he told the story of being taken to a dentist’s office when he was a political prisoner in communist Czechoslovakia, and the absurdity of other patients in the room pretending not to see him dressed in a common prisoners uniform. The video ends on a powerful note about the moral pitfalls of beach tourism to Cuba. It is a short, funny, powerful and bittersweet video.

Václav Havel in an address to the Central European University on June 24, 1999 at a difficult moment on the international scene made the case for laughter.

“The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world.”

Following his death in 2011, every year on the anniversary of his passing admirers of Václav Havel the world over wear short trousers in his memory..

On December 18th roll up your trousers to honor Václav Havel

Organizers explained its historic significance along with its particular Czech sensibility.

The “Short Trousers for Václav Havel” initiative started in 2012 to honor the memory of Václav Havel with a gesture that was unique, memorable and easily achieved by supporters of this exceptional person in modern Czech and European history.  Short Trousers is a reference to Havel stepping into political life in 1989 and his inauguration to the presidency in visibly short trousers. He explained vainly that rather than a tailor’s mistake it was his habit to pull his pants up at every dramatic situation. To this, one might say global mythology of his short trousers, he added with a smile: “I must say that I am glad of it, more or less. From my point of view it’s a pretty gentle way of mocking myself.”  An effort to honor such a respectable person by a gesture that points to this humorous episode might appear, at first sight, as a contradictory act. But the opposite is true. We believe that rolled up trousers on the anniversary of the death of Václav Havel is a gesture which is Czech, slightly satirical and which can be easily joined by anyone who wants to honor the memory of the last Czechoslovak and the first Czech president Havel in a cheerful way.

This method of spontaneous remembrance contrasts dramatically with how dictators forcibly demand that they be remembered on penalty of imprisonment. The world is worse off without Vaclav Havel, and I miss him, and so should anyone engaged in a struggle for freedom.  Today members of the U.S. Embassy honored Havel’s memory wearing short trousers, and so did I.

He was a friend of Frank Calzon, the Center for a Free Cuba, and free Cubans generally, and he is the first entry in the Center’s Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor represents men and women from all parts of the world who came to the assistance of the Cuban people when many others choose to ignore their tragic plight as a result of the imposition of a communist regime on the island.

Radio Prague International, December 18, 2023

Czechs mark 12th anniversary of the death of Václav Havel

Czechs on Monday marked the 12th anniversary of the death of the country’s first post-communist president and icon of the Velvet Revolution Václav Havel. Politicians and members of the public laid flowers and lit candles at his grave in Prague’s Vinohrady Cemetery and in the evening dozens of people joined a commemorative march to Prague Castle in his memory. Senate chair Miloš Vystrčil stressed the need for the country to uphold the values Havel reinstated – freedom and democracy, conscience, responsibility and patriotism.

President Havel died at his country cottage in Hrádeček on December 18, 2011 at the age of 75.

Author: Daniela Lazarová