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23 Years of Ceausescu : Romania--Tight Rule of a ‘Deity’

Times Staff Writer

The rendezvous must be in a public place and yet one that offers some security, a place where a conversation can be held but where, the woman hopes, the cushions of the upholstery or the scrollwork of the table conceal no listening devices. This choice, of course, is not easy.

All the usual venues for such conversations--a crowded square, a walk though a park--are no good here, for even though the secret police may be unable to hear, they will surely see--they follow foreigners everywhere--and that, too, will have its unfortunate consequences. So the choice is not made with any confidence--confidence here being as rare as a cabbage in the market--but it is made, and can be described no further except to note the rattle from the glass table top as she reaches, with tremulous fingers, for her teacup.

“We are all becoming sick here,” she says. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Who?”

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Two Exceptions

“All of us. All of us except the New Man and New Woman. All of us except his people.” With both hands, she lifts her cup to her lips. “Maybe them most of all.”

Her finger taps the side of her head--"We are losing ourselves--losing our minds.”

“What do the people think"--a quick look around--"of him?”

The pronoun has only one meaning here. Nicolae Ceausescu, president, general secretary of the Communist Party of Romania, referred to by poets as the “Golden Man of the Carpathians,” officially the “much esteemed and beloved leader” whose “visionary epoch” would be “immortal.” What do Romanians think?

She lowers her teacup and mouths the words soundlessly.

“They hate him,” her lips say.

Hymns of Gratitude

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Ceausescu is 70 years old, his birthday in January celebrated with solemn convocations of the party, pages of gray detail in the newspapers, three national museums mounting official “homages” to his accomplishments, and film documentaries, repeatedly featured on Romania’s 2-hour daily ration of television broadcasting, in which choirs of factory workers and schoolchildren, in sunshine and bright costume, sang hymns of gratitude for his very existence.

Scenes in the streets suggest something else, a vision resembling, as American literature Nobel laureate Saul Bellow described it a few years ago, “exercise in a prison yard.” People line up, on pavements sticky with the mud from the president’s massive demolition and construction projects, to buy plastic bags of chicken parts, the feet and wings. No one seems to know what happened to the rest of the birds.

That’s on a good day. Many butcher shops, in fact, have simply closed. Those remaining sell slabs of pork fat and a kind of gray sausage. No one has seen a potato in the markets for months. There are carrots, beets, onions and small spotted apples. For the seventh straight winter, meat, butter, sugar and cooking oil are rationed.

Also heat and electricity. For the month of January, a family of four was allotted 35 kilowatt hours of electricity, resulting in rooms dim with 40-watt bulbs, and those who violated the restrictions were faced with electric bills equal to a month’s salary.

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Romania’s blessing this year has been a mild winter, but guests at the opera still wear their coats throughout the performance, and hundreds of thousands of residents in the apartment blocks ringing the old city begin cooking their pork fat and carrot stews at 10 p.m., when the gas comes on.

The city sinks at night into a gloom that seems unreal for a capital with 2 million inhabitants. Store windows are unlit, the few restaurants close by 8 or 9 o’clock. Half the street lamps are turned off. The winter mists rise out of the wet streets, casting halos around what pale light there is, amplifying the rasp of footsteps in the dark.

Late at night, the policemen--the ones in uniform and in teams of three--stop the few citizens who dare to be out at so provocative an hour, check their papers, ask where they’ve been and where they’re going. It is like a place at war.

Monument to Himself

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Up on the hill, however, the construction goes on all night. When most other lights are turned out, the blue flash of the welding torch still can be seen high in the ironwork of the Palace of Government, as it is called, a building with the height and rough dimensions of a post-modern pyramid, which is what some people believe it to be: Ceausescu’s monument to himself.

In a country where much seems to be going wrong, where there is allowed no underground, no dissent, no opposition, where people for years now have been using cigarettes for black-market currency, this project races ahead, round the clock, employing the national army as a construction force.

About 20% of the old city of Bucharest has been destroyed to make room for it.

Nicolae Ceausescu has been in power in Romania for 23 years. For much of that time, he was regarded with some admiration, particularly in the West, as a maverick in the Communist world. In 1968, he refused to lend his armed forces to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that put down the reform movement led by Alexander Dubcek. He formed independent links to China when it was unfashionable in the European Communist world to do so, and, alone in the Soviet Bloc, he maintained relations with Israel.

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In 1975, the United States, possibly with the dual purpose of encouraging any rogue tendencies in the Soviet camp and ensuring an annual emigration of Romanian Jews to Israel, granted most-favored-nation trade status to Romania. More than 170,000 Romanians have left the country since that has been in force, and more are waiting to do so.

Borrowed Heavily

The 1970s were a relatively flush time for Romania, and it borrowed heavily, investing in energy-intensive heavy industries, running up a debt of about $10 billion. In 1980, Ceausescu decided on a crash program to pay back the loans. The national economy was geared for export, earning hard currency to repay the debts, while severe austerity measures were imposed at home.

The nation’s meat supplies, for example, were largely exported--to the Soviet Union, the Middle East and the West, including the United States. Factories were pressed hard to meet their annual plan targets, and worker salaries could be docked by as much as 30% when quotas went unmet.

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Over the last seven years, Ceausescu has cut the debt to less than $5 billion, but conditions for ordinary Romanians have worsened annually, and repression has increased.

A cult of personality has grown up around the party leader, and his wife, Elena, that these days is rivaled only by that of Kim Il Sung in North Korea. With the help of hired writers and the national treasury, he has published 145 books abroad, all aimed at promoting his image as a fighter for international peace and disarmament.

Smiling Portrait

Ceausescu’s photograph, taken at least 20 years ago and rosily tinted--cheeks full, hair brown and thickly wavy--smiles down from public buildings, state offices, stores, hotel lobbies, an unintended parody of the gray, hatchet-thin figure he has become. Signs along the roads, beside rural soccer fields and town squares, hail the “Epoca Ceausescu.” Official scribes often capitalize the pronouns him and her, as though the Ceausescus had taken on deified status.

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The national machinery for Ceausescu’s glorification is tireless and unembarrassed. During his recent birthday omagiu (homage), the state media published notes of congratulation from foreign leaders, including ones from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Belgium’s King Baudouin I, Spain’s King Juan Carlos I and Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustav. That brought protests from those governments: the notes, it turned out, were fakes, cobbled together out of old protocol messages.

All this is no joke, however, to the 23 million Romanians who are forced to live not just with the egos of the Ceausescu family but with the regime’s mounting insecurity and reliance on police control.

The government was jolted last November, when several thousand workers and students--estimates have ranged between 2,500 and 10,000--took to the streets in the industrial city of Brasov, in Transylvania, to protest pay cuts and shortages of food and energy. The protesters marched to City Hall and party headquarters, shouted demands for “more heat” and “more food” and burned photographs of Ceausescu before police and army units intervened.

News of the protest spread rapidly in Romania, although there was no reference to the city in the nation’s news media until 17 days later. Then it was reported that the management of the Red Flag Truck Factory in Brasov had been fired and that an unspecified number of workers relocated for committing what was vaguely described as “a number of deeds alien to the socialist system.”

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Diplomats in Bucharest say they believe that about 60 people involved in the protest were given jail terms while other were sent to work in the coal mines. The state news agency remains mute on the subject.

Not long after the Brasov incident, Silviu Brucan, a retired diplomat and senior party official, declared that the Brasov demonstration was “a watershed in Romania’s political history as a socialist state.” He said that the “eruption shows that the cup of privation is full and the working class no longer accepts to be treated as an obedient servant.” He said that this winter’s energy-saving decree, the harshest yet, “is actually asking the workers to commit suicide by freezing in their bedrooms.”

Given 2 Choices

The Romanian leadership, he summed up, now had to choose between large-scale repression or redressing the grievances of the people.

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The immediate choice of the Romanian leadership was to put Brucan under house arrest, where he has remained since early December, with two policemen stationed near his door to turn away visitors.

Meanwhile, Ceausescu’s international isolation grows. He is on the outs with the Hungarians over what they claim is discrimination against the Hungarian minority in the country, and with the Germans for alleged discrimination against the German minority. The Soviets regard him as a Stalinist throwback. International Jewish leaders are suggesting that the Yugoslavs might provide a more suitable intermediary for Middle East diplomacy than Romania, a role that Ceausescu has conspicuously promoted.

And now Romania is about to forgo the valuable most-favored-nation status. U.S. officials in Washington said two weeks ago that Romania, apparently weary with Washington’s nagging about human rights, had renounced the trade benefits as of July 2.

Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, who met with Ceausescu on Feb. 1 in Bucharest, commented afterward that the trade privileges were “in some jeopardy.” He said at the time he was disappointed that, in three hours of talks, he was not “able to convey successfully to President Ceausescu the deep feelings that my country has about human rights and the importance of individual freedoms.” He said Ceausescu seemed to resent mention of the topic.

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The end of the special trade arrangement will stop tariff reductions now worth about $250 million a year, according to Romanian estimates, a loss that will price some Romanian products out of the market and further cripple the country’s economy.

Must Report Contacts

Repression would also likely increase, although at first blush, it would seem hard to improve on the system already in place. By law, Romanians are obliged to report to police any contact with foreigners. A visiting journalist is conspicuously tailed by shifting teams of secret policemen, so that any Romanian careless enough to converse with him risks immediate interrogation or arrest. Very few take the chance.

“They have a thousand ways of making your life miserable,” the woman says. “Your job, your apartment, the police--jail if they want. They will always find a way.”

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Hotel rooms are bugged, telephones are tapped and virtually anyone who would normally come in contact with foreigners is on the state police payroll. This has given rise to a legion of informers, full- and part-time, a fear so pervasive that it borders on a national illness and thousands of people Ceausescu may have in mind when he refers to the “New Man” and “New Woman” of Romania--people whose sense of the abnormal has been so thoroughly erased that they no longer know what’s going on, regardless of what their eyes tell them. The bare-faced lie becomes the national truth.

Thus, on a tour of the city, a hotel guide, when he sees lines of people standing outside shops, has a kind of explanation.

“There aren’t really shortages of anything,” he says. “Sometimes there is just a problem with supply.”

‘Beef’ Actually Carrots

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A few days later, on a walking tour around Bucharest’s downtown area, the visitor was checking out the markets with a friend of the guide’s, a young woman. Passing through one of them, the woman pointed in triumph as a worker tossed bags of frozen goods into a display case. “There,” she said, “beef.”

But what had appeared to be beef was chopped carrots. In the midst of them was some kind of meat, bone and fat, about the size of a child’s fist, and of indeterminate origin.

“Ah,” the woman said, “these are ingredients for a traditional Romanian soup.” Viorel Salagean, the chief editor of Scinteia, the government daily, said the problem is that Romanians are overeaters.

“I, too, am guilty of this,” he confided, although he is notably trim. “Romanians simply store food away. Every Romanian apartment has five, 10, 15 kilos of meat in the freezer.’

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Ion Hobana, a gray-haired, professorial science fiction writer who is head of the Romanian Writers’ Union, claimed that Romanian writers have complete freedom of expression. Censorship, he said, “was canceled” in 1977.

“Each publishing house is now responsible for its own product,” he said, without mentioning that publishing houses are run by the government. When he was asked if a Romanian writer could criticize Ceausescu in print, both he and his translator laughed. But Hobana recovered quickly with the view that the duty of the writer is to provide “constructive” criticism.

“The principal preoccupation of literature is characters and how they develop themselves, and the development, the forward march, of society,” he said.

Early in the conversation, Hobana had mentioned a number of well-known writers who have visited Romania over the years, including Bellow. He said he has never seen Bellow’s novel, “The Dean’s December,” which was set in Bucharest as a result of that visit.

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Certainly no bookstore in Romania, their windows invariably clogged with the many works of Nicolae Ceausescu, would have room to sell it. So Hobana would have no way of knowing that Bellow described Romania as “this bug-house country,” where “clearly the guys in charge were psychopaths. There were no rational grounds for what they did.”

Privileged Youth

A weekend trip to Brasov and the ski resorts of Transylvania doesn’t add much cheer to the Romanian landscape. As diplomats and other foreign observers in Bucharest predicted, the roads seem curiously thick with police, stationed at virtually every crossroads. The resort nightclubs seem full of the privileged youths, children of party big shots, smoking Kents, the ultimate status symbol, knocking back Polish vodka --in better days they drank Scotch--and watching the parades of dancing girls.

Public restrooms, even in the better hotels, have no toilet paper. Experienced Romanian travelers bring their own. Some kind of cola drink, guides promise, is manufactured locally, but a hotel waiter says he cannot remember when he has seen it.

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In the hotel restaurant, the pats of butter in grimy little wrappings have gone rancid. The official guides, and observers, make the best of this with good cheer and unfailing hospitality, but the sense of things falling slowly apart is difficult to hide.

In Brasov, there is no sign of tension or disruption. The truck and tractor factories work without apparent interruption.

A college-age youth, stopped in the street, is asked about the protests back in November. His face going gray, he says he knows nothing about it. Two persons, in brief moments when the visitor sheds his vigilant guides, mention them fleetingly.

“I think you know,” says one, “what would happen to me if they knew I spoke to you.”

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No Radio Batteries

Back in Bucharest, the atmosphere of the surreal remained like an element of the murky air. Four days of searching fails to turn up batteries for a portable radio. A line 80 yards long and four people thick appears in minutes when a load of oranges arrives at a food market.

On the old shopping bazaar street, used furniture that would not pass muster in a second-hand shop in Addis Ababa sells at high prices. Typewriters 70 years old sell for the equivalent of a month’s salary, and a buyer would have to register the purchase with the police.

Shoppers paw through racks of pawned clothing searching for an overlooked bargain. An old man and woman stop and stare, as if transfixed, at a plate of three pork chops and rolls of pickled fish in a restaurant window.

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In the Inter-Continental Hotel, crowds of students from Africa and the Middle East hang out. There are about 25,000 foreign students in Romania, each paying around $3,000 a year in tuition.

“It means a good income for us,” the guide says, “since it takes most of them six or seven years to finish.”

The students loitering around the hotels deal in black market money or trade in coffee and Kent cigarettes.

The fixation on Kent cigarettes remains one of the bizarre economic mysteries of Romania. Neither Romanians, nor a spokeswoman at Lorillard Inc., which once made Kents but now no longer owns the non-U.S. rights to the Kent name, could explain how or when it got started. But, since Romanians are forbidden to hold foreign currency, Kent cigarettes have become a substitute for cash.

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$100 Per Carton

Some people actually smoke them, though doing so is a sign of conspicuous advantage, rather like lighting cigars with money. The rough value is $100 per carton, but close observers say the value fluctuates within 30 minutes of a change in the illegal currency markets in neighboring Yugoslavia.

Other Western-made cigarettes also have an inflated value, but Kents are the standard.

In real terms, a carton of Kents might buy a set of dentures, get an appointment with an important doctor or a hotel prostitute. Twenty cartons might put a person at the front of the line to buy a color television set.

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Two or three packs presented at the back door of a restaurant could provide a month’s supply of meat. A single pack, waved at the curb, will inspire fistfights among taxi drivers. A single cigarette makes a reasonable tip for a speedy waiter.

Behind the hotel bar, cartons of Kents are stacked up in pyramids, like piles of cash in Las Vegas casinos, suggesting wealth and well-being and plentiful good luck. But their presence is an unspoken acknowledgement of Romania’s dire straits: These cigarettes are to be bought by foreigners and handed out to the people, grease for the creaky system.

Over by the great construction site, as evening darkness falls, the Kentless thousands pick their way across a field of mud to the new subway station, set at the foot of a double, thousand-yard row of apartment buildings. These still-empty dwellings are intended for the New Men and Women of Romania who will one day staff the higher offices in the Palace of Government, now rising in colossal symmetry at the end of the avenue.

Deserted Walkways

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All of this has been done in less than two years, and is not yet finished. The walkways approaching the great building are as deserted as the new apartments. The street lamps, each with six globes and set 40 paces apart, are still turned off. The only light comes from the halogen lamps illuminating the construction.

Up close, the building is pointedly awesome and yet curiously obscure, fuming with dust, welding smoke and the mist of night. From somewhere above, the shouts of the unseen workers can be heard, remote but insistent, back and forth, carrying down to the darkened street below.


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