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In Honor of Vaclav Havel and the 30th Anniversary of Charter 77 Statement by Representative Steny Hoyer

  • Hon. Steny Hoyer
    US












House of Representative

110th Congress, First Session

Madame Speaker, this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Charter 77 movement. Along with other colleagues from the Helsinki Commission, which I had the privilege of Chairing and Co-Chairing from 1985 to 1994, I rise today to commemorate Charter 77’s extraordinary accomplishments, and to praise Vaclav Havel, a founding member of the Charter 77 movement and Czechoslovakia’s first President after the fall of communism. 

Twenty years ago this month, I led a Congressional delegation to Czechoslovakia – my first trip to that country. At that time, I was assured by Czechoslovak Government officials that Charter 77 was only a small group, and there was no need to have a dialogue with its members. In an apparent effort to underscore their point, the regime detained several Chartists to keep them from meeting with our delegation: Vaclav Havel, Petr Uhl and Jiri Dienstbier were all arrested in Prague; Miklos Duray was prevented from traveling to Prague from Slovakia; and although Petr Puspoki-Nagy made it to Prague, he was also immediately detained on his arrival. 

Although I was deprived of the chance to meet these individuals in person, I was already well aware of their work. In fact, the Helsinki Commission’s second hearing, held in February 1977, published the full text of the Charter 77 manifesto at the request of one of our witnesses, Mrs. Anna Faltus. We owe a special debt of gratitude to the late Mrs. Faltus, who worked tirelessly for decades as an advocate for a free Czechoslovakia. To this end, she made sure that the documents of Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted were quickly translated and widely disseminated to policy makers and human rights advocates. Her effort made it possible for the Helsinki Commission to publish (in 1982 and in 1987) selected and representatives texts of the Charter 77 movement. 

Looking back, the breadth of those documents is truly remarkably, touching on everything from the legacy of World War II to the country’s economic situation; from contemporary music to nuclear energy. But the common thread that bound these diverse statements together was a commitment to promote and protect “the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights.” This right was freely adopted by the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic when Gustav Husak fixed his signature to the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. 

It was, of course, with great interest that I discussed Charter 77, first with Czechoslovak officials during my February 1987 trip to Prague, then with Czechoslovak parliamentarians visiting Washington in June 1988 (a delegation which included Prague Communist Party boss Miroslav Stepan), and then with the Czechoslovak delegation to the 1989 Paris Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension. In these meetings, as well as in correspondence with the Czechoslovak Ambassador to the United States, I was told that Charter 77 didn’t represent public opinion. I was warned that siding with Charter 77 would not help bilateral relations, and I was assured that democracy was coming soon to Czechoslovakia – “socialist democracy.” 

Needless to say, I was not convinced by my interlocutors: I was not convinced that Augustin Navratil was actually being treated for a mental health condition, rather than being persecuted for his religious activism. I was frankly disgusted when the Czechoslovak delegation to the Paris meeting baldly lied about Jiri Wolf, telling us he had been released early from his prison sentence as a “humanitarian” gesture, and then shrugging with indifference when they were caught in their lie. Most of all, I did not believe that Vaclav Havel was a criminal and Charter 77 merely an “insignificant” group. 

In fact, in 1989 Senator Dennis DeConcini and I nominated Vaclav Havel for the Nobel Peace Prize. As Senator DeConcini said, “[i]n spite of relentless harassment by the authorities, including imprisonment, repeated detentions, house searches, and confiscation of property, Havel has remained active in the struggle for human rights. . . . Havel is now in prison, but he is not alone in his cause. In a dramatic move . . . over 700 of his colleagues – playwrights, producers, artists, and actors – signed a petition calling for his release and the release of others [similarly imprisoned.] For these people, like many others in his country, Vaclav Havel has become a symbol of an enduring and selfless commitment to human rights.” 

Madame Speaker, on this 30th anniversary of the founding of the Charter 77 movement, I rise to commend and remember the courageous men and women, signatories and supporters, who paved the way for the peaceful transition from communism in Czechoslovakia and restoration of Europe, whole and free. On this anniversary, I give special tribute to Vaclav Havel, playwright and president, and his singular role in leading his country to freedom.

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