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23 Years of Ceausescu : Romania--Tight Rule of a 'Deity'

March 09, 1988|CHARLES T. POWERS | Times Staff Writer

BUCHAREST, Romania — 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?"

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

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.

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

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.

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