Czechoslovak playwright and dissident who led the human rights struggle for the Czechoslovak people, Havel was born into a wealthy and influential family who lost its power and fortune after the communists took control of the government in February 1948. Havel, an intellectual, came to prominence as an activist for social justice in early 1968; he protested the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies to repress the Prague Spring of 1968, a period of political reforms introduced by Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček. In 1969, the government labeled his writings revolutionary, banned them from public view, and revoked his passport.
In the 1970s, Havel moved center stage in the Czechoslovak struggle for human rights. He became increasingly more vocal about government repression of the people through his writings. In April 1975, he took a bold step when he sent an open letter to then Czechoslovak President Gustav Husák criticizing the president for the miserable state of the country. Later he admitted he wrote the letter “to stir things up.” Over the next few years, Havel pressed the government for human rights for its citizens through his writings and activism. In 1976, he wrote an essay about the arrest and trial of the Plastic People of the Universe, a banned underground Czech rock group. In early January 1977, Havel cofounded Charter 77, a human rights movement. He and other key dissidents published a manifesto that challenged the government to give citizens human rights in accordance with the Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement.
As a result of his participation in Charter 77, on January 14, 1977, Havel was arrested and incarcerated for a few months. On his release from prison, he continued his struggle to fight for human rights. Soon after, he cofounded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Oppressed. His increased activism as a major spokesperson for human rights led to his imprisonment as a dissident for 4 years (1979 through 1983). He was again jailed in 1989 for a short time.
In November 1989, the charismatic Havel cofounded the Civic Forum, a political reform movement. On November 18, he surfaced as a central figure in the Czechoslovak bloodless “Velvet Revolution” that toppled communism that December. His leadership role in the revolution thrust him further into the spotlight and on December 29, 1989, he became the interim president of Czechoslovakia. Approximately 6 months later, he was elected president by a historic voter turnout. While in office, he pursued social justice for the Czech people through social reforms, abolishing the death penalty, and closing munitions factories.
On July 20, 1992, he resigned from office to protest the separation of Czechoslovakia into two independent countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Despite his resignation, on January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries. Shortly after, on January 26, 1993, Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic, and served two 5-year terms, the maximum allowable by Czech law. His presidency ended officially on February 2, 2003.
Once out of office Havel continued his activism for social justice. His postpresidential years focused his attention on political repression in Cuba, and in 2003, he founded the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba (IDCC). Most recently, he and Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of South Africa, asked the Security Council of the United Nations to exert political pressure to effect political reform and to advance human rights for the people of Burma.
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