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Birth and Death in Romania

The government also seems to have decided that the best way to avoid the country’s being turned into an agricultural hinterland is to destroy agriculture. A permanent reduction in farm income, flagrant production shortages in chemical fertilizers, the spasmodic fluctuations in the size of individual private allotments, the coercive control of trade between village and city—all have contributed to dissuade the farmers not only from producing and selling, but even from preserving their social identity. The farmers have more and more abandoned agriculture. In such circumstances an increasingly important share of agricultural labor is being performed through forced labor by the army, by university and secondary school students, and even by thousands of laborers and trained experts who are obliged to leave the factories in order to work in the fields abandoned by those who had always tended them in the past.

The regime is now making efforts to reverse this trend. Today, young people are no longer being allowed to leave their villages—following historic practice—and the adults transplanted to urban areas are being urged to return to the villages from which they were in many cases forcibly evicted. But the new measures being taken seem aimed not at alleviating but at worsening the situation of the rural population. The decree of January 24, 1982, which contains eighty-nine articles and which is purported to represent “a new agricultural revolution,” provided inter alia for the compulsory participation of the entire rural population, independent of profession, in agricultural labor, special mention being made of old people, invalids, and children from the age of ten (articles 10 and 11), and there are penal and economic sanctions—including the confiscation of individual land allotments—against those who do not put in the minimum number of work days, etc.

To supplement their meager rations, farmers have turned en masse to stealing corn, wheat, and potatoes out of the fields. A number have been tried and found guilty. I heard of a female farmer in the Prahova district who was caught carrying a sack of stolen corn by the rural militia. At her trial her lawyer read out the statement issued by the district Party committee announcing the end of the harvest. since the offense had been committed a week after the date on which the statement was issued, it was obvious that the woman could not have been stealing corn; officially there was no longer any corn left in the fields to be stolen. She was acquitted.

Others were not so lucky—which has led the farmers to change their tactics: now they send their children to steal for them, since it is much more difficult for the authorities to take legal action against them. Teaching children to steal in order to obtain food is an act of desperation on the part of a farmer class that has traditionally adored children and prided itself on an exalted sense of personal honor. This entire battle over food can only serve to stabilize the weird state of affairs in which responsibility for agricultural production, now removed from the farmer class, has become the burdensome monopoly of those in power.

During the past decade the country has thrown itself into frantic industrial growth at an average annual rate of over 12 percent. This rate, the highest in Europe, is stressed in the official propaganda being issued to lend credence to the regime’s economic strategy. The Romanians are told that production—which represents the basic raw material of independence—is more virtuous than consumption, which creates so many problems for the nations that mistakenly extol it.

When translated into drastic restriction of consumer goods in favor of stockpiling industrial goods, this ethical principle quickly had visible technological results. Two peaks rose above the monotonous landscape of autarchy: the production of steel and of high-octane fuel. In a very short time, the country found itself equipped with oil refineries that had a capacity three times greater than the level of domestic production (considerable, according to European standards: over 11 million tons per year). That these refineries would be kept busy was made possible by an agreement with Iran. Iran undertook to provide the oil; in return Romania would furnish Iran with a percentage of the refined product, the remainder to be set aside either for Romania’s own energy requirements or for sale for hard currency on the international market. Labeled “Energy Independence,” the plan did indeed strengthen the country’s independence from the USSR, but not, of course, from Iran.

Heavy foreign debts were contracted to carry out the plan, but no sooner had it got underway than two adverse events occurred, as disastrous as they were unpredictable: the oil crisis and the fall of the Shah. The Shah’s sorry end is a familiar story; few are aware of the irreparable consequence his fate posed to the Romanian leadership, and particularly for the Romanian oil refineries. With limited water and coal resources and no access to the output of Soviet nuclear power stations—Romania had thus tied up enormous funds, relying on an oil arrangement that hardly outlived the ceremonies organized to celebrate its signing.

While Romania can only make partial use of these refineries, it must nevertheless pay off the foreign debts it contracted to construct them. Instead of amassing currency from gasoline sold to the West, the country must bleed itself to repay the 12 billion dollars, plus very high interest, that Western countries claim, notwithstanding Romania’s policy of independence from the USSR. Obviously, the only way the government can cover its losses is to crack down on domestic mass consumption.


When it comes to political independence, the Romanians find out about it through rumors. They can judge the country’s energy independence from what they see. When darkness falls, the cities are plunged into shadow—paradise for burglars—and in the daytime, in some cities, buses run only between 6 and 8 AM and 3 and 5 PM. Electric energy and water services are interrupted daily, at irregular intervals and for periods that can exceed four hours. As a result, refrigerators defrost in the summer and in every season residents of Bucharest avoid using elevators so they won’t be caught between floors: elderly people laden with packages and grandmothers carrying babies prepare for the return to their homes on the tenth or eleventh floors as though for a mountain climb. The strongest light bulb sold is forty watts, and it is illegal to use more than one lamp per room; television programming has been cut back to two hours during the working day; each official organization is allowed to use only a limited number of the cars assigned to it (of course, there are exceptions, but not in favor of emergency hospital ambulances).

The private use of cars is now banned for the winter months and during the remaining nine months the lines to buy limited amounts of gasoline can last from twenty-four to forty-eight hours. The procession that crosses the city four times a day as the president moves between the residential palace and the one in which he works is made up of nine cars, not to mention the unknown number of automobiles not officially part of the retinue but assigned to protect it. (A doctor I talked to said that if the presidential cortege were to be cut back to four automobiles and the gasoline thereby saved turned over to ambulances, dozens of people might be spared death each week.)

Some bolder citizens, I was told, began to complain and to say that the vaunted energy independence had gone far enough. They were wrong. The proof came with the polar temperatures of the winter of 1984–1985, when heat was virtually cut off in every city. At twenty below zero people were freezing at home and in theaters, and, most of all, in hospitals. Schools were closed; women who had to go to work in the morning learned to do their cooking after midnight, when the power would occasionally be turned back on for one or two hours, on forbidden electric plates: the fine for doing so is five thousand lei, equivalent to the average salary for two months.

The regime tried to alleviate the situation. By the late 1970s it had become clear that the replacement of the easy-going Shah by the inflexible Ayatollah in Iran would require, in Romania, the replacement of the easy flow of Iranian oil by something more dependable. Here the president’s philosophy—that history cannot really be changed without also changing geography—came into play. Ceausescu had earlier ordered construction of the canal from the Danube to the Black Sea, which soaked up immense sums of money but which foreign ships still refuse to use. He ordered the demolition of a third of Bucharest in order to build a new presidential palace flanked by a triumphal boulevard cutting across the entire city (2.5 million inhabitants). Now, in the same intrepid spirit, he issued the order that Romania was to become a great coal producer. In the country’s principal coal-producing region more than thirty thousand miners went on strike.

A new decree announced that hence-forth the principal coal-producing regions would be elsewhere, nearer the president’s native village, where the local coal, according to experts I talked to, had a caloric-energy content below the economically or technologically tolerable limits. Although they did not go out on strike, the new miners did not prove to be up to the tasks assigned them. Thus the first version of the plan had called for a production level of 86 million tons of coal by 1985, its second version set a goal of 64 million, whereas the reported actual production was 44 million. In the end, energy independence based on Romanian coal turned out to be not all that different from energy independence based on Iranian oil.

One might think that the Romanian energy shortage is the worst on the Continent. Nothing could be more erroneous. During the late 1970s, when they were still obtainable, official statistical data showed that at that time Romania’s electrical energy output—2,764 kilowatt hours—was nearly equal to that of Italy, greater than that of Hungary (2,196 kilowatt hours), Spain, and Yugoslavia, twice that of Portugal, etc. If, notwithstanding, such signs of extreme energy shortage were not being observed in Lisbon, but were all-too-evident in Bucharest, this is because Romania, instead of squandering its electrical energy on the needs of its people, was allocating it to industries that consume large amounts of energy.

Given its mineral resources, Romania’s iron and steel industry had never been very efficient. In 1965, when Ceausescu came to power, it already had the remarkable steel-production rate of 180 kilos per capita, each year. Under the new leader, that figure in fifteen years took a jump that few economies have ever managed to duplicate: over 600 kilos of steel per capita in 1980—in other words, more than France, Great Britain, East Germany, or the United States.

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