‘Indifference Is Not Permissible’

Think of Vaclav Havel as Arthur Miller and Nelson Mandela rolled into one. By the time Havel became president of Czechoslovakia almost 18 years ago, he was already an internationally renowned writer—whose work had been banned at home—and a human- rights activist who spent four years in jail as a political prisoner. Once dubbed the dissident playwright, he was a part of Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring,” the vibrant social and intellectual movement forcefully crushed by Soviet troops in 1968. In 1989, Havel led the bloodless Velvet Revolution that toppled his nation’s communist rulers and was promptly elected president of the newly free nation. He stayed in office until 2003, when he was prevented from running again due to term limits.

Now 70, Havel shows no signs of slowing down, either artistically or politically. He remains active in global politics, and has been an outspoken critic of human-rights violations, particularly in North Korea. He recently completed a seven-week residency in New York hosted by the Arts Initiative at Columbia University. Meanwhile, a collective of Off-Broadway theater companies presented a career retrospective called “Havel Fest,” which featured 18 of his plays. Havel shared his opinions on Iraq, North Korea and civil rights with NEWSWEEK’s Karen Fragala Smith. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When you were in New York City for the first time in the late 1960's, you attended protests against the Vietnam War. Do you see any similarities between the current military conflict in Iraq and Vietnam?

VACLAV HAVEL: I believe that the international community has the right to intervene in cases of genocide, and that indifference is not permissible. I would draw the parallel with Germany in 1938-39, and had there been an intervention back then, many lives would have been saved. But the thing is to be well prepared, and this has not been the situation with the Iraq War. In the case of Iraq, the timing was not explained sufficiently, and the explanation about the hidden weapons of mass destruction was not convincing at all.

President Bush has spoken often of his desire to bring democracy to the Muslim world. Given your experience during the Velvet Revolution, do you believe that democracy can be installed from outside?

I think the very term “export of democracy” is an unhappy term. Even a government that is elected democratically can cause a lot of evil, as we know from the story of Hitler. In Iraq, the goal should be to save another 100,000 Iraqi people rather than the creation of a different political system. The question of the political system should not be part of the reasoning for the war because it really is up to the Iraqi people to decide what sort of political system they want. The mess that is in Iraq today should have been foreseen. I think that Americans should have left Iraq a long time ago. They should leave now.

Do you believe that the Velvet Revolution would have been possible if [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev had not instituted perestroika [reform]? How likely is a similar revolution in countries that are currently under totalitarian rule?

I don’t know if these two situations can be compared, but in the case of Iran, there is a powerful opposition of young people against the fundamentalist government. The international interest in the opposition is very important. It is also important that non-governmental organizations and the media support the opposition in a useful, effective way. This goes for all countries that suffer from dictatorship, not only in the Muslim world, but also in Russia and Cuba. I believe it is faulty to emphasize the religion in this respect, because fundamental Christians can and did cause great, a lot of grave events in history as well. In principle, all religions are peaceful.

In October, you cowrote an op-ed for the New York Times on North Korea and the humanitarian crisis there. What do you think needs to be the next step taken by the international community to protect the North Korean people?

The situation in North Korea is very grim. Much of the budget goes to military spending, while the country is ridden with famine. There is great poverty, there are gulags, and we think that something needs to be done. The op-ed letter was done along with Elie Wiesel and Kjell Magne Bondevik, to accompany a report sponsored by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The point is that it is not enough if a certain weapons factory is shut down—the regime will just start again somewhere else. I’ve met a number of people who were in North Korean prisons and managed to get out and live in exile. It is important to listen to them and address these human-rights violations in North Korea.

You have spoken about how you were inspired by the U.S. civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, and that you saw the United States as a beacon of freedom. Do you think anti-terrorism measures such as the Patriot Act are having a significant effect on civil liberties in America?

I have to say that I encounter a certain type of tolerance here which is fascinating. Americans have a love for freedom illustrated by flags on every third house and that people put flags everywhere on their clothes. It seems somewhat funny, but the spirit of it comes through. I am reminded of the situation of Malcolm X who returned to America from a trip abroad, and despite all the persecution here, he claimed that it is still the most free country anywhere.

You are known as one of the masters of the theater of the absurd. Why did you find this particular approach to theater so effective for commenting on politics?

I did not intend my plays to be directly political. They are plays about ordinary people and about the world. The role of theatre is not didactic—it is not to teach people but to pose questions. Absurd theater is not skeptical theater, but rather a type of theater created to encourage people to come to their senses.

You have said that “truth and morality could have stronger power than weapons.” Is that still true in the age of terrorism?

I believe the statement is valid universally. In terms of terrorism, we need to analyze it as a metaphysical phenomenon. Self-preservation seems to be a very strong urge, so in cases where self-sacrifice abundantly comes in its place, we should examine where this is coming from.

In the 1990’s there was a spirit of euphoria and liberty around the world as the cold war ended, democracy spread and apartheid crumbled. Has the tide turned?

When the bipolar division of the world ended, evil became more dispersed rather than localized. I think the world is better off now that it is not divided between Moscow and Washington. Now there are new concerns to deal with, such as the environment. I also think that with the increase in the power of the media, the possibility of the best people coming to office is decreased. People care more about what a politician’s hair looks like than their long-term perspective and knowledge of the context of things. It has become more difficult to create a new political order and express the minority opinion in a convincing way.