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20 years is nothing

20 years ago today I was a couple of weeks from finishing High School. Many things were going around in my mind. A big sense of accomplishment from having successfully finished such an important stage in my life; some nervousness from what the future had in stock for me and from knowing that things would never be so easy again and also a bit of sadness from knowing deep down that the twists and turns of life would make me loose touch with many of the people I had shared so many years of my life with.

1989 was also a very hectic year from Argentina. Presidential elections, economic meltdown and violent social unrest. Despite all this, we got and followed the news of the events unfolding in Eastern Europe: Hungary opening its border with Austria, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

20 years ago today the Velvet Revolution started. It was a series of peaceful protests that, though not the first of their kind, in a few days managed to bring down the Communist Regime. Back then I didn't pay too much attention to the details, and so it wasn't until I moved here that I knew that the leader of that movement was a playwright, essayist and political dissident called Václav Havel. By the end of that year Mr Havel would be elected President of Czechoslovakia and in 2002 he was in the last months of his second, and last, term as President of the Czech Rep.

With time I would learn more things about this man and today, even though I don't share many of his political views, I have great respect and some admiration for him. That's because he has something that few politicians nowadays have, Integrity. That and massive cojones. Once I read that, when things were getting pretty rough for people like him, he was offered help to emigrate. He chose to stay and fight from the inside, risking, if not his life, for sure his health.
I've seen Václav Havel in person twice, and both times I was very impressed. Neither was at an official event or anything similar, I didn't even hear him speak. I saw him at the supermarket, alone. No bodyguards, no PA's, no extraordinary security measures, just a pensioner doing his shopping like everyone else. Some people approached him to greet him or shake his hand, most went about their business as if nothing was happening (something that impressed me about the Czechs as well). Where I come from, you would never see an ex-president or high profile politician doing something so pedestrian, they have a detachment of minions to take care of that (besides, if they did bother, people wouldn't approach them to shake their hands, but to lynch them, but that's something else).

And what does it all have to do with the topic of this blog? Well, it's well known that Mr. Havel likes his pivo, and he likes it good. I would love to share a few pints with him at a pub. I'm sure conversation would be great and the man must have some really juicy stories to tell.

So today I raise my "půl litr" in honour of Václav Havel and all those brave men and women who withouth shedding any blood were able to end four decades of oppression and lies.

Na vaše Zdraví, Česko!

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  1. If you want a good biography of Havel, read A Tragedy in 6 Acts by John Keane - very much an eye opener and well worth the reading.

  2. Havel - the man who interpreted being sent to work in a brewery as a punishment.

    I've a lot more respect for Hrabal both as a man and a writer.

  3. Today a local TV channel airs a documentary about Havel's stint at a brewery. I want to watch it.

    In the poster for the film he's shown carrying a sack of (likely) malt on his shoulder. Don't know if that's all he did there, but if so, I think I would consider that as punishment as well, but then again, I consider any sort of honest, hard work as punishment...

  4. I met him in his apartement in 1987. In and out of prison all the time, but being in the international spotlight made it possible for him to keep on doing his work.
    A chain-smoking little man they were unable to silence.
    We shold pray for more leaders of his calibre. Whatever your sympaties, Ron, I find your comment puzzling. There might be better writers, but the dignity of Havel as a statesman is worth admiration.

  5. 20 years ago today the Velvet Revolution started.It was a great series of peaceful.

  6. Havel doesn't rate in even my top 20 Czech writers. There were plenty of others - writers and ordinary Czechs - who went through much worse than Havel, yet everyone treats him as some sort of saint. It's only because Havel had good contacts in the West that he got the prominence he did.

    For the record, my Czech teacher in London was Jan Kavan, a member of Charter 77 forced to leave Czechoslovakia. There's a man I do respect.

  7. I'm glad that not-czechs see him as I do...btw it was Trutnov brewery Krakonos and I don't think it was any punishment, but I might be wrong...anyway - he liked the job!

  8. Ron, it's no surprise you don't like Havel. Neither did Kavan.

    Havel had suggested Kavan resign as head of the UN General Assembly as corruption charges swirled around him. Perhaps you are aware that:

    Kavan personally brought Karel Srba into the Czech Foreign Ministry. Srba was deeply corrupt and Kavan signed off on a number of his deals. Srba was working for military intelligence while working for the foreign ministry. He also was caught planning the murder of a journalists and was sent to jail for a very long time.

    Say what you like about guilt by association -- the ministry that Kavan ran was riddled with corruption. Either he was incompetent or corrupt -- not a good choice.

    But that is just the beginning of troubling Jan Kavan stories.

    He also was caught on hidden camera by Swedish journalists describing how major Czech politicians accepted bribes for the Gripen fighter deal and that he could use his contacts to slow down the investigation.

    He also undertook foolish actions in 1981 that resulted in the arrest of Czechoslovak dissidents -- sending their names and addresses along with banned literature into the country. When British journalists reported on it, he filed a complaint. Evidence was found to back the BBC, Kavan changed his story, and the complaint was dismissed.

    I understand you knew the man personally and developed respect for him. Some blame his enemies or journalists for these stories -- he was never caught red-handed. But there are enough of them that I would view the man's character with deep skepticism.

  9. I don't think Havel is saint there were many people who not only suffered more, but actually lost their lives during Communism. Also, I think the membership to NATO, something that Havel made possible, is pretty stupid (the whole NATO thing makes no sense anymore to me, actually), but the man does have integrity, you have to give him that.

    Anyway, it was not my intention to start a political debate...

  10. I agree Havel is far from perfect and has made many mistakes. I only wanted to add some balance regarding Kavan. Just like Havel, there are people who have reason to respect his accomplishments, and there are those who don't.


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