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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


25 years after his visit to Buenos Aires: Václav Havel at CARI

As President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel visited Buenos Aires on September 27, 1996. On that occasion, after a presentation by a member of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI), Havel gave a brief introduction and then answered questions from local representatives invited by CARI. On the 25th anniversary of his visit to Buenos Aires, thanks to the kindness of CARI, we offer the audio of the activity and the transcription into English of Václav Havel``s speech.

Václav Havel

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour to have been invited to your prestigious council. I have attended several meetings and discussions with politicians, academics, businessmen from all over the world, and it has always been very interesting and enriching for me. This is one of my first meetings in Latin America (not counting a meeting I had with about twenty intellectuals in Chile a few days ago).

I thank the director for his kind words, although I have to confess a feeling of embarrassment. Listening to my compacted biography, it would seem as if I were some sort of fairy tale hero. I want to assure you that I am an ordinary person, full of doubts, insecurities, questions. I am often nervous, sometimes I am in a good mood, sometimes I am in a worse mood, sometimes I express myself well, sometimes not so well. I am certainly no superman, but one thing I dare say is that I commit to and stand behind certain things. And I do not endorse them because I am extremely brave, but rather because I am afraid. I am afraid of my own conscience and the regret that would envelop me if I felt that I had made a questionable commitment, if I felt that I betrayed, disappointed or let someone down. I felt this kind of remorse a couple of times. And it was so unpleasant and horrible that I dread it now, and that's why I feel brave.

Now I am ready to answer your questions, as best I know how.

How would you situate the cultural, ethnic and historical reality of Latin America in this international panorama of our time of transition, and what mission would fall to the Ibero-American culture in this modern culture of coexistence?

These are essentially two questions in which the first concerns my general view of the world today and the second concerns my feelings and impressions of Latin America. With respect to the first question, I really do not feel that my life, my work or my observation of the world has been exhausted by my criticisms of the totalitarian communist system, and I do not feel that once this totalitarian system collapsed, history ended, now everything is in order, and we are approaching paradise. I do not feel that this is the case. I see a considerable amount of threats to civilization and dangers surrounding us. I often speak about them in various speeches on different continents in different parts of the world. In fact, even communism - respectively the totalitarian system of the Soviet communist type - which collapsed, I consider only one of the extreme, specific, acute and dangerous manifestations of a deeper crisis. This particular manifestation ended, communism collapsed, but some of those elements of crisis in today's world have not disappeared. On the contrary, different ways for those regimes to flourish have been enabled. If we look at our part of the world, known as the "post-communist" region, we can observe many new and worrying examples: the rise of nationalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, among others.

For me, an essential role of the politician - as an independent intellectual - is to observe the world with a critical lens, so as not to miss these elements of crisis. But mainly, I consider that the role of the politician is to think about the challenges faced and to present solutions, as well as hope. And this is what I will aspire to do, within my limited political power. This is my rather general answer to the first question.

As for the second part of the question, from what I know of the Latin American continent, from what I have read and have had the privilege of observing with my own eyes, several things have stood out to me. First of all, it seems to be a continent that is composed of a great variety of peoples, a variety of ethnicities, races, colors, skin, religions: the multicultural feeling is strong. I have observed this in the four countries I have visited here, though only to the extent that such short business trips allow. And precisely because today's civilization constantly pushes us towards each other, while there is a growing number of people, it seems that people are increasingly focusing on their differences, which threatens to amplify the differences between civil groups, between cultures and backgrounds. And at a time when such threats prevail, Latin America can be seen as an example and an inspiration, showing that it is possible: we can all live together, despite our differences.

Moreover, it seems to me that it is a very dynamic continent, with abundant resources; a continent with a promising future. Equally fascinating is that it is a continent with a young and expanding democracy. In recent decades, Latin America was marked by military dictatorships and similar regimes, which are no more. Presently, democracy is triumphing here, which means that democracy is not simply a Euro-American invention, which the West is imposing on the rest of the world, but is a space that allows people with diverse cultural backgrounds to resolve their own affairs freely, and with dignity. This seems to be the case here.

Also, it seems to me that this continent has a good posture in terms of its political and economic integration. There are essentially only two languages spoken here, which means that there are not so many language barriers. But this is just an external issue. The history of South America is very similar; the individual states gained independence around the same time, the cultural traditions seemed interrelated (though slightly different in different areas) before the arrival of Columbus and the arrival of Europeans and black slaves imported from Africa. And although each country has its irreplaceable atmosphere, its climate, its culture, its history, there is, nevertheless, much similarity in spirit. And this form of integration, I believe, in the 21st century, is one of the ways to achieve some form of world order.

What do you think is the reason why communism had so many followers in the names of intellectuals and in the names of culture?

I think there are many reasons, and sometimes some prevail and sometimes others do. One of the reasons is, for example, this temptation for intellectuals to believe that, as intellectuals, they have understood the world. It is an inclination towards an ideology, towards the belief that it is possible to understand all the laws of history and to derive from them a vision of an ideal world, and to sketch a utopia. This is a kind of manifestation of the arrogance of a modern reason, of which Marxism is only one of many branches. This is a great intellectual temptation: the deification of its own reason. The belief that your own self is capable of understanding everything, understanding the workings of the world, and from that, deriving a plan for how the world could be improved and how it should be. From this mentality, it is only a small step to start building this imagined ideal world. And only then do we understand that life is mysterious, complex, changing, always surprising us with something, and does not fit the mold of our vision. What happens next? Either you have to give up the project or start adapting your life to the project. And the latter is what led to the Gulag, concentration camps, and similar results. How does this differ from forcing life in the name of utopia? This is an intellectual temptation that is not unique to communism.

There are also other reasons, which relate more to the atmosphere of a certain country, to a specific situation. If, for example, in some countries there are large social gaps between rich and poor, and the rich behave with contempt towards the poor, the intellectual who demonstrates, or should demonstrate a greater social sensitivity and sense of justice, begins to rebel. A logical question arises: what better alternative is there? And as a result, communist ideology presents itself: the ideology that claims it will correct injustices. But again, as in the first instance, this is a failure of the intellectual, because an intellectual, in my mind, must be one who problematizes, questions the nature of things. Not one to give in and succumb to an already finished ideology, incorporate it and appropriate it, forgetting to think critically. To some extent we witnessed this in our country, where there many of our great writers who became communists, and later paid for it, some were even persecuted. This is another possible reason.

Then there is a reason that is relatively legitimate, which I will not expand on, but I would describe using the saying of Adam Michnik, who is a Polish journalist and a friend of mine, who says, "We carry our purse on the right, but our heart is on the left."

I would like to ask you to develop here some of the characteristics of that religious sensitivity to which you referred and the role it is called to play.

I have been reflecting on these things for a long time. And I don't think I can convey the scope of my thoughts in a few sentences. But I can try.

In prison, for example, I thought a lot about the sources of responsibility. Again and again I asked myself the same question: to whom is a person really responsible? And why is he or she responsible? Am I responsible to my friends? And to my immediate circle? What if they never see me? What if they never find out about my actions, then I can act irresponsibly? Why do I have to be responsible even when no one can see me? I have thought about the sources of responsibility and keep coming back to the idea that the source is deeper. Responsibility derives from the relationship between a person and the order above him, something that transcends him. Only then is it possible to explain that people can behave respectfully towards each other, or perform good deeds. I say this in a very simplified, almost primitive way, but I hope you understand me. I am convinced that the roots of the moral order and responsibility of mankind are metaphysical. It is the result of my own inner experience and my experience with the world. Once we look at the world around us and see all the crises that exist in it, I conclude that the only way to deal with this is to strengthen a deep and global responsibility. Strengthen the relationship of the person with eternity, with infinity, with the order that transcends it. Then, we will restore the awareness of the metaphysical origin of this moral order. We see that the world today consists of various circles of civilizations characterized by different religious traditions. If we reflect on these contradictory and different religions and their fundamental principles, and if we study the fundamental canons of these religions, we will discover that they are all, in fact, very similar. They have the same fundamental principles that spring from the respect of the human being himself for someone who created him, for the miracle of creation, for the miracle of being. I reflect on this subject not only as a philosopher in prison or elsewhere, but I try to project these reflections in more political environments, like the ones you mentioned.

Mr. President, in many parts of the world, the so-called 'political class' is suffering a period of disrepute, to some extent, and so a question that arises almost naturally is: how does an intellectual – with demonstrated integrity – get into the game of politics?

The question about the role of the intellectual and whether he can participate in politics is often raised. I don't know. I think that first of all we would have to clarify what we mean by intellectual. We would have to define this concept. I would propose a definition: the intellectual is a person who, through his interests, his education, by nature of his soul, is willing to think about the broader meaning of things, to contemplate them, to articulate them and feel their consequences, through a greater sensitivity, or a greater sense of responsibility. To the extent that we understand the intellectual to be like that, I think the intellectual is crucial in politics, and really every politician should be an intellectual. For what more can we demand of a politician in today's world, which is at such a considerable crossroads, than precisely that: that he or she consider a long-term perspective, in broader contexts, and feel a global responsibility? A politician who only thinks about what to say on TV tonight, and then is only interested in whether public opinion will reflect him the next day, and who only thinks from one election to the next is, in my opinion, a rather mediocre politician. He may be successful, because he knows how to appeal to the masses, but it seems to me that what is demanded of politicians today is greater, particularly in today's times. We know many politicians who are like that or were like that not so long ago. They managed to confront public opinion in the interest of some long-term objective, an objective that transcends immediate interests, they managed to go against others, but they did it in a way that in the end earned them respect, and they were not rejected. The people understood that the politician was right, and they supported him. It would be great if politicians were like that, especially in these times. The world would badly need such politicians.

Based on your current experience in power, do you think it is possible for politics to resume the leadership of the great economic, financial and cultural interests that today seem to prevail over the world's political will?

I don't think politicians save the world. But I do believe they have a significant influence on the world. Each individual has to start with himself. A politician has to reflect on the extent of his or her influence and the consequent extent of his or her responsibility. Politicians are not just people with power, in the sense that they are decision makers, they go to meetings, and they vote on issues, etc. They are people who affect society because every other day they appear on television and their thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes toward life will have an effect on society. They must realize this, as well as the responsibility that comes with it.

With respect to culture and politics, I personally do not like it when culture is seen as an ornament to life, or as a condiment to life. There are important things, economic issues, material issues, and then there are decorative things, like, for example, culture. I think this is incorrect. Culture is a space in which the individual acquires self-consciousness - culture in the broadest sense of the word, not culture as in individual disciplines, like literature, theater, and things like that. I think culture is a space of human communication, a space of self-awareness: not only intellectual, but also moral self-awareness. It is a space of human knowledge, of understanding oneself and the world. The character and quality of the culture of life, or of the culture of politics, or of the culture of the state, in this general sense of the word, greatly influences positively or negatively all that this encompasses, including the economy. I don't believe in those cheap and ridiculous formulas that the Marxists used when they taught the fundamentals of the economy and the superstructure. It is more complex than that, the human soul is more complex. Even the one who takes care of his material status, of his daily bread, as well as an entrepreneur, is a multidimensional being, who has his own soul. Culture is a space where that soul is formed, expanded and defined, and consequently influences everything else you do, including your business.

Translated by Tomas Novak.


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