Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is speaking Thursday at Florida International University on Vaclav Havel’s legacy of freedom. Havel led Czechs in opposing communism and was elected president in the country’s first free elections. He died last winter, but is remembered as Central Europe’s conscience of our times. His personal courage essay, The Power of the Powerless, provides hope to men and women fighting despotism everywhere.
Albright and Havel were born in what Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister and appeaser of the Nazis, called “a far-away country about which we know nothing.” Albright, a scholar who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was only 2-years-old when her family fled to London. When the Nazis were defeated, the family returned. In her memoir, Prague Winter, Albright writes that “Czechoslovakia became again a battleground between democracy and totalitarianism; before long, my family was forced into exile a second time.”
Her life resonates in South Florida, where the despicable deeds of dictators, tyranny, and exile are a lot more than a newspaper headline or a nightly news broadcast.
After becoming president Havel insisted that, just as the Czechs had been helped by the democratic world, they lend their voices to the cries for help from other oppressed people in Burma, Tibet, North Korea, China and Cuba. He welcomed to Prague such Cuban dissidents as Oswaldo Payá, Raúl Rivero, Carlos Franqui and the Ladies in White. He founded the International Committee to Promote Democracy in Cuba bringing together many democratic leaders, including former Chilean President Patricio Alwyin, the democratically elected president who followed Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
At a private dinner in Washington, Havel assured me of his support for Cuba’s freedom “no matter how many years it would take.” He knew the importance of symbols and the power of the word: In a video made for distribution around the world he advised tourists enjoying Cuban beaches to remember that there are political prisoners on the island.
As Albright speaks today human-rights activists are waging a hunger strike in Cuba and routine beatings of dissidents continue. Payá, leader of the Cuban Christian democrats, recently died in a suspicious car accident.
Havel had great courage. Years ago, while visiting Prague’s foreign ministry I learned that the Chinese were threatening to cut off trade with the Czechs that was worth millions because of Havel’s criticism of how China was treating Tibet. Havel did not blink.
Neither did his colleagues. When there was little likelihood that a resolution critical of Cuban violations would be presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, deputy foreign minister Martin Palous led the Czech delegation in garnering approval, despite strong opposition from China, Libya, Venezuela, Russia, and Cuba.
Havel was troubled by appeasement. In 2005 The Miami Herald published an article in which he stated, “the European Union is dancing to Fidel Castro’s tune” and denounced “the shortsightedness” of Spain’s then socialist government which had agreed “to craft [its embassy] guest list in accordance with the Cuban government’s wishes.” Spain, he wrote, was trying to protect the profits of European corporations derived from Cuba’s government-controlled tourism industry. “It is hard,” he wrote, “to imagine a more shameful deal.”
Madeleine Albright also recognizes cowardice. When Castro’s war planes shot down two small, unarmed aircraft searching the Florida Straits for rafts and refugees, one of the Cuban Air Force pilots boasted on radio about this cowardly action. The communication was intercepted and Albright played the tape for the international community. “Frankly, this is not cojones, this is cowardice,” she said.
Given her courage, her Czech background and her American diplomatic career there is no one better than Madeline Albright to pay homage to Havel in Miami.
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Arlington, Va. Former Secretary Albright’s speech will be at the Graham Ballroom on the main campus of FIU at 3 p.m.