Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in the former Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died. He was 75.
Havel died yesterday morning at his weekend house in the northern Czech Republic, his assistant Sabina Dancecova said.
Havel was his country’s first democratically elected president after the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” that ended four decades of repression by a regime he ridiculed as “Absurdistan.”
As president, he oversaw the country’s bumpy transition to democracy and a free-market economy, as well its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
A former chain-smoker, Havel had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in communist jails. He was hospitalized in Prague on Jan. 12, 2009, with an unspecified inflammation, and had developed breathing difficulties after undergoing minor throat surgery.
Havel left office in 2003, 10 years after Czechoslovakia broke up and just months before both nations joined the EU. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought his Czech Republic into the 27-nation bloc and was president when it joined NATO in 1999.
Shy and bookish, with wispy mustache and unkempt hair, Havel came to symbolize the power of the people to peacefully overcome totalitarian rule.
“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred,” Havel famously said.
It became his revolutionary motto, which he said he always strove to live by.
Havel was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defending the downtrodden from Darfur to Myanmar.
Among his many honors were Sweden’s prestigious Olof Palme Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award, bestowed on him by former US president George W. Bush for being “one of liberty’s great heroes.”