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Havel, Czech playwright and president, has died

File - In this Oct. 15, 2009 file photo former Czech President Vaclav Havel is seen during a press conference on occasion of the 20th anniversary of the changes in Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Prague. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)File - In this Oct. 15, 2009 file photo former Czech President Vaclav Havel is seen during a press conference on occasion of the 20th anniversary of the changes in Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Prague. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

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.

FILE - President Vaclav Havel and his wife Dagmar wave to the crowd of well-wishers from the balcony of Prague Castle after Havel was sworn in for the second term as president of the Czech Republic in this Feb. 2, 1998 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Tomas Turek,CTK)FILE - President Vaclav Havel and his wife Dagmar wave to the crowd of well-wishers from the balcony of Prague Castle after Havel was sworn in for the second term as president of the Czech Republic in this Feb. 2, 1998 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Tomas Turek,CTK)

He was his country's first democratically elected president, leading it through the early challenges of democracy and its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though his image suffered as his people discovered the difficulties of transforming their society.

A former chain-smoker who had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in communist jails, Havel 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.

FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama, left, meets former Czech President Vaclav Havel, during a summit between the United States and the 27-member European Union in Prague, Czech Republic, in this April 5, 2009 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama, left, meets former Czech President Vaclav Havel, during a summit between the United States and the 27-member European Union in Prague, Czech Republic, in this April 5, 2009 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)

"A great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy has died," said Lech Walesa, the fellow anti-communist activist who founded neighboring Poland's Solidarity movement.

"It is a great pity and a great loss. His outstanding voice of wisdom will be missed," Walesa said. "I am praying for the peace of his soul."

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."

FILE - in this Dec. 10 2011 file photo Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, left, hands a present to Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel, right, during their meeting in Prague, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo,CTK/Katerina Sulova) SLOVAKIA OUTFILE - in this Dec. 10 2011 file photo Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, left, hands a present to Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel, right, during their meeting in Prague, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo,CTK/Katerina Sulova) SLOVAKIA OUT

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.

"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.

"It's interesting that I had an adventurous life, even though I am not an adventurer by nature. It was fate and history that caused my life to be adventurous rather than me as someone who seeks adventure," he once told Czech radio, in a typically modest comment.

FILE - President Bush embraces Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, after presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House in this July 23, 2003 file photo. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award of the U.S. government. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)FILE - President Bush embraces Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, after presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House in this July 23, 2003 file photo. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award of the U.S. government. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

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.

FILE - Former Czech President and author Vaclav Havel stands at the Archa Theater prior a press conference on the premiere of his new play "Leaving" in Prague, Czech Republic in this Tuesday May 20, 2008 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)FILE - Former Czech President and author Vaclav Havel stands at the Archa Theater prior a press conference on the premiere of his new play "Leaving" in Prague, Czech Republic in this Tuesday May 20, 2008 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

One of his best-known essays, "The Power and the Powerless" written in 1978, borrowed slyly from the immortal opening line of the mid-19th century Communist Manifesto, writing: "A specter is haunting eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called 'dissent.'"

In the essay, he dissected what he called the "dictatorship of ritual" — the ossified Soviet bloc system under Leonid Brezhnev — and imagined what happens when an ordinary greengrocer stops displaying communist slogans and begins "living in truth," rediscovering "his suppressed identity and dignity."

FILE - In this file photo taken Feb. 3, 2011, former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel answers questions about anti-government protests in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East during an interview with The Associated Press in Prague, Czech Republic. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)FILE - In this file photo taken Feb. 3, 2011, former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel answers questions about anti-government protests in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East during an interview with The Associated Press in Prague, Czech Republic. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Havel knew that suppression firsthand.

Born Oct. 5, 1936, in Prague, the child of a wealthy family which lost extensive property to communist nationalization in 1948, Havel was denied a formal education, eventually earning a degree at night school and starting out in theater as a stagehand.

His political activism began in earnest in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and the cause drew widening attention in the West.

FILE - Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel waves to a cheering crowd in Prague, June 9, 1990. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Kevin Harvey, File)FILE - Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel waves to a cheering crowd in Prague, June 9, 1990. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Kevin Harvey, File)

Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife became one of his best-known works. "Letters to Olga" blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles.

The events of August 1988 — the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion — first suggested that Havel and his friends might one day replace the faceless apparatchiks who jailed them.

FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel waves to onlookers as he enters with actress Dagmar Veskrnova his private villa following their private wedding ceremony in Prague in this Jan. 4,1997 file photo. Veskrnova,44, is a popular TV, theatre and film actress with a full-time job in one of Prague's leading theatres. Havel's wife Olga died of cancer in January 1996 after 32 years of marriage. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Stanislav Peska/CTK)FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel waves to onlookers as he enters with actress Dagmar Veskrnova his private villa following their private wedding ceremony in Prague in this Jan. 4,1997 file photo. Veskrnova,44, is a popular TV, theatre and film actress with a full-time job in one of Prague's leading theatres. Havel's wife Olga died of cancer in January 1996 after 32 years of marriage. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Stanislav Peska/CTK)

Thousands of mostly young people marched through central Prague, yelling Havel's name and that of the playwright's hero, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher who was Czechoslovakia's first president after it was founded in 1918.

Havel's arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him again in May.

That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, communist police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students.

FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel adjusts his bow-tie as he accompanies Britain' s Queen Elizabeth II to the state banquet in the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle late in this March 27, 1996 file photo. Havel wears the Knight Grand and Cross of the Order of the Bath he received from the queen on the first day of her visit to the Czech Republic. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Tomas Turek/CTK, File)FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel adjusts his bow-tie as he accompanies Britain' s Queen Elizabeth II to the state banquet in the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle late in this March 27, 1996 file photo. Havel wears the Knight Grand and Cross of the Order of the Bath he received from the queen on the first day of her visit to the Czech Republic. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Tomas Turek/CTK, File)

It was the signal that Havel and his country had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets.

In three heady weeks, communist rule was broken. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones arrived just as the Soviet army was leaving. Posters in Prague proclaimed: "The tanks are rolling out — the Stones are rolling in."

On Dec. 29, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovakia's president by the country's still-communist parliament. Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year's address: "Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine."

FILE - Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, left, speaks with Pope John Paul II during a private audience at the Vatican in Rome, In this Dec. 18, 1999 file photo. Havel is on an official visit to Italy and the Vatican. The pontiff is holding a gift he received from Havel. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti, File)FILE - Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, left, speaks with Pope John Paul II during a private audience at the Vatican in Rome, In this Dec. 18, 1999 file photo. Havel is on an official visit to Italy and the Vatican. The pontiff is holding a gift he received from Havel. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti, File)

Although he continued to be regarded a moral voice as he decried the shortcomings of his society under democracy, he eventually bent to the dictates of convention and power. His watchwords — "what the heart thinks, the tongue speaks" — had to be modified for day-to-day politics.

In July 1992, it became clear that the Czechoslovak federation was heading for a split. Considering it a personal failure, Havel resigned as president.

But he remained popular and was elected president of the new Czech Republic uncontested.

FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel holds an honorary doctorate of the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU) in Prague that was conferred to him in this Oct. 4, 1996 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Michal Dolezal/CTK, File)FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel holds an honorary doctorate of the Academy of Performing Arts (AMU) in Prague that was conferred to him in this Oct. 4, 1996 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Michal Dolezal/CTK, File)

He was small, but his presence and wit could fill a room. Even late in life, he retained a certain impishness and boyish grin, shifting easily from philosophy to jokes or plain old Prague gossip.

In December 1996, just 11 months after his first wife, Olga Havlova, died of cancer, he lost a third of his right lung during surgery to remove a 15-millimeter (half-inch) malignant tumor.

He gave up smoking and married Dagmar Veskrnova, a dashing actress almost 20 years his junior.

FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel, left, talks to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as they meet at Prague Castle in this Nov. 16, 1999 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Stanislav Peska/CTK)FILE - Czech President Vaclav Havel, left, talks to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as they meet at Prague Castle in this Nov. 16, 1999 file photo. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Stanislav Peska/CTK)

Holding a post of immense prestige but little power, Havel's attempts to reconcile rival politicians were considered by many as unconstitutional intrusions, and his pleas for political leaders to build a "civic society" based on respect, tolerance and individual responsibility went largely unanswered.

Media criticism, once unthinkable, became unrelenting. Serious newspapers questioned his political visions; tabloids focused mainly on his private life and his flashy second wife.

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 in 2004, and was president when it joined NATO in 1999.

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.

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 and European 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 himself acknowledged that his handling of domestic issues never matched his flair for foreign affairs. But when the Czech Republic joined NATO and the EU his dreams came true.

"I can't stop rejoicing that I live in this time and can participate in it," Havel exulted.

Early in 2008, Havel returned to his first love: the stage. He published a new play, "Leaving," about the struggles of a leader on his way out of office, and the work gained critical acclaim.

Theater, he told the AP, was once again his major interest.

"My return to the stage was not easy," he said. "It's not a common thing for someone to be involved in theater, become a president, and then go back."