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Havel’s Speech Resonates Today

Close to 400 people packed the Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium to attend the event "Václav Havel, Speaking Today," featuring former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and singer Joan Baez, on February 18, 2020. The event highlighted late Czech President Václav Havel’s historic speech 30 years ago before the joint session of the United States Congress, following the collapse of the communist regime. 

The program began with a collage of Havel’s life from the upcoming documentary Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me? by director Petr Jančárek, with images of Havel as a baby playfully wearing an impromptu crown to his future life as president and public servant. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Havel became the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic.           

As the short segment finished, Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček welcomed the audience and stressed the bi-partisan support for the occasion, having as honorary co-hosts House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. He then invited to the stage former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who spoke about first meeting Havel, how he mistakenly called her “Ms. Fulbright” upon their initial meeting and the background story behind his memorable speech that brought 17 standing ovations in Congress on February 21, 1990.          

“Václav Havel’s message transcended style. He may not have been smooth, but he was authentic and also surprising. The world had expected him to denounce the Soviet leaders who had long oppressed Czechoslovakia and instead he requested help for the Russian people in making their own transition to democracy,” Albright said.          

She remembered Havel as a man who was shocked at being elected president. He had served time in prison for his dissident activities as one of the writers of Charter 77, a document that criticized the Czechoslovak communist government for failing to implement human rights provisions.             

Albright said, “Instead of treating the Cold War’s end as a climatic victory, he emphasized the challenges that lie ahead – to create a world shaped by moral responsibility. Instead of focusing on ideology or politics, he stressed the obligations we each have to one another.”            

She mentioned how Havel’s bust now stands in the Freedom Foyer of the U.S. Capitol, only steps from where he delivered his original speech. Havel remains one of only four foreign leaders to receive such an honor.

In her concluding remarks she stated, “Tonight, we celebrate 30 years of what once was thought to be impossible. We should all truly listen to the words of Václav Havel. Let us pledge to keep challenging cynics to elevate our discourse and to use our freedom to create a world that is more just, humane and tolerant.”

As Albright stepped down from the podium, archival footage from Havel’s speech to Congress played for the audience to take in before Martin Palouš, senior fellow and director of the Václav Havel Center for Human Rights and Democracy at Florida International University, came to the stage.          

When thinking about Havel today, Martin Palouš said, “If we want to resist totalitarianism, our capacity to think is crucial…Havel’s speech is a reminder that all the responsibility for ethical change, our words and consequences and our actions, can have an impact for better or worse for the sake of democracy and freedom around the world.”        

Over the course of his talk, Palouš also spoke about Havel as a playwright taught by life itself. He acknowledged how theater greatly affected Havel’s life saying, “Havel ultimately accepted the main role in his own political drama.”       

As Palouš finished his remarks,  another segment of Jačárek’s documentary played, cleverly weaving together snippets of Havel’s dissident years and leading the people during the Velvet Revolution to becoming president, edited to Suzanne Vega’s song Tom Diner and Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, before ending with a brief interlude showing Havel with folk singer Joan Baez singing We Shall Overcome

Remembering life before the fall of the communist regime, Joan Baez stated, “I never understood why they (the secret police) let me in.” 

Baez met Havel in Bratislava. He and his dissident friends would make their way to her concerts, and she would wait by the phone for his arrival. A throng of secret police followed him. In order to dodge the police, Havel became her “roadie,” carrying her guitar to avoid being taken away. At her one of her performances, the police cut the sound to her concert. Therefore, she sang a cappella Swing Low to dissident Havel and concertgoers.                

Václav Havel told her, “We must find ways to make mischief.” She reiterated that he was a mischief-maker for change.       

“The embodiment of what I think takes the world to make social change is it takes the willingness to take risks because I believe without those risks no serious social change can happen,” said Baez.    
In a brief conversation with participants of the event, Ambassador Kmoníček asked about Havel’s legacy as perceived then and today. Baez stated, “What we learned from him was that one takes the risk, and one pays the price. And, that is what we have to do.”      
Albright responded, “What is most relevant then and now is the power of the powerless, the importance of speaking out, the role of the individuals that live in democracies.”   
As the participants exited the stage, Baez surprised the audience when she took the microphone and sang a couple of bars from the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”  She sang, “They are not gonna let nobody turn me around. Keep on walking. Keep on talking. Gonna build a brand new world,” as the audience erupted in applause.    

The event concluded with excerpts from Jančárek’s documentary Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?, revealing some of Havel’s last acts as a citizen – visiting the Dalai Lama, directing his film Leaving, and spending time at his cottage in the Czech Republic.    

As the event concluded, one might be reminded of Havel’s speech 30 years ago stating, “The only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility.”

The honorary co-hosts of the event included House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.         

The event was presented by the Embassy of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel Library Foundation, Czech Center, American Friends of the Czech Republic, Florida International University (FIU) – Václav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Essens Foundation, Endorfilm, and the Michael Kocab Foundation.       

Link to speech