Milton Cerny of McGuireWoods approaches next week’s high-level 25th anniversary commemorations of the “Velvet Revolution” that ended 40 years of Soviet domination in Czechoslovakia with vivid first-person memories of its leader, the late Václav Havel.
Cerny played a significant role in the week of upcoming events by helping to persuade a quarrelsome Congress to show rare enthusiastic bipartisan support for enshrining Havel’s bust in the Capitol’s hallowed Statuary Hall – only the fourth non-American leader to be so honored. The son of a Czech immigrant, Cerny is a director of the Václav Havel Library Foundation and a founder and former president of the American Friends of the Czech Republic, both of which played prominent roles in unifying Democrats and Republicans behind the resolution.
“(Havel) had such a reputation in this country that it was not difficult to speak to people in Congress and convince them that this was an appropriate thing,” said Cerny, a tax and employee benefits lawyer in McGuireWoods’ offices in Washington and Richmond, Virginia. McGuireWoods is a contributing sponsor to this week’s events on Cerny’s behalf.
For decades, Cerny had admired Havel, a dissident playwright imprisoned by Moscow’s proxy government in Czechoslovakia for writings that challenged and ridiculed its totalitarian rule over the country since World War II. Havel inspired the nonviolent popular uprising that began Nov. 17, 1989, and toppled the Communist regime, a development that was integral to ending the Cold War. He became his country’s first democratically elected president and immediately pushed for lasting reforms that guarantee individual rights. And that’s what eventually brought Cerny face-to-face with his hero in 1992 in Havel’s office in Prague Castle.
Cerny was an attorney representing the U.S. Treasury Department in advising the Ministry of Finance in Czechoslovakia on reforming its laws to accommodate the formation of nonprofit organizations.
“Over the years, we developed a relationship and I had met with him many times in Prague and in Washington and in New York,” said Cerny. “I worked on law reform in the Czech Republic, basically in the nonprofit tax area. I met with him and his wife, Olga, about the foundations she had set up to assist the poor and children in Czechoslovakia.”
In subsequent years, Cerny met and worked with Havel numerous times in Prague, New York and Washington. On Havel’s final trip to the United States, he presented Cerny with the Gold Medal of the Czech Republic.
After Havel’s death in December 2012, Cerny and others, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former First Lady Laura Bush, former McGuireWoods partner Elliot Berke and former presidential adviser Fred Malek, redoubled their efforts to ensure that Havel’s legacy of liberty is not forgotten or diminished. Congress overwhelmingly approved the resolution in March to add Havel’s bust to the Capitol’s Freedom Foyer. His likeness joins those of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and non-U.S. leaders Winston Churchill, Hungarian democracy champion Luis Kossuth and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary credited with saving thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps during World War II.
Havel’s bust will be unveiled during a Capitol ceremony at 1 p.m. on Nov. 19 featuring comments by House Speaker John Boehner, Czech Republic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka , Havel’s widow Dagmar Havlová, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and Jan Hamáček, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Parliament.
Other events honoring Havel and 25 years of Czech independence include a concert by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the National Cathedral, a gala dinner organized by the Václav Havel Library Foundation, and a daylong conference on Havel’s legacy at the Library of Congress.