Czech playwright, ex-president Havel dies

Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright and leading member of the Czechoslovak opposition Civic Forum, is pictured addressing demonstrators in Prague, December 10, 1988. At the end of 1989, Havel was elected first president of Czechoslovakia when the state-communist system crumbled. LUBOMIR KOTEK-JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

PRAGUE (AP) — Vaclav Havel wove theater into revolution, leading the charge to peacefully bring down communism in a regime he ridiculed as "Absurdistan" and proving the power of the people to overcome totalitarian rule.

Shy and bookish, with a wispy mustache and unkempt hair, the dissident playwright was an unlikely hero of Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Revolution" after four decades of suffocating repression — and of the epic struggle that ended the wider Cold War.

His country's first democratically elected president, he led it through its early years, overseeing its bumpy transition to democracy and its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Havel, a former chain-smoker who had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in communist jails, died Sunday morning at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic, his assistant Sabina Tancevova said. His wife Dagmar and a nun who had been caring for him the last few months of his life were by his side, she said. He was 75.

"Havel was a symbol of the events of 1989 — he did a tremendous job for this country," Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas said.

Havel left office in 2003, 10 years after Czechoslovakia broke up and just months before both nations joined the European Union. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought his Czech Republic into the 27-nation bloc, and was president when it joined NATO in 1999.

"Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred," Havel famously said. It became his revolutionary motto which he said he always strove to live by.

Even out of office, the diminutive Havel remained a world figure. He was part of the "new Europe" — in the coinage of then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — of ex-communist countries that stood up for the U.S. when the democracies of "old Europe" opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Havel was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defended the downtrodden from Darfur to Myanmar.

Among his many honors were Sweden's prestigious Olof Palme Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award, bestowed on him by President George W. Bush for being "one of liberty's great heroes."

An avowed peacenik whose heroes included rockers such as Frank Zappa, he never quite shed his flower-child past and often signed his name with a small heart as a flourish.

In an October 2008 interview with The Associated Press, Havel rebuked Russia for invading Georgia two months earlier, and warned EU leaders against appeasing Moscow.

"We should not turn a blind eye ... It's a big test for the West," he said.

Havel also said he saw the global economic crisis as a warning not to abandon basic human values in the scramble to prosper.

"It's a warning against the idea that we understand the world, that we know how everything works," he told the AP in his office in Prague. The cramped work space was packed with his books, plays and rock memorabilia.

Havel first made a name for himself after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberally minded communists in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Havel's plays were banned as hard-liners installed by Moscow snuffed out every whiff of rebellion. But he continued to write, producing a series of underground essays that stand with the work of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as the most incisive and eloquent analyses of what communism did to society and the individual.

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