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NEWS ANALYSIS : Power Ends for Dictator, Wife Amid Chaos

December 23, 1989|CHARLES T. POWERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — Nicolae Ceausescu's monster was dying monstrously Friday.

As his 24-year-old dictatorship in Romania careened into its final blood-soaked days, Nicolae Ceausescu, along with his wife Elena, his son and his network of family retainers, probably realized they could expect little mercy or sympathy from 23 million Romanians who have endured a despotism that, at the last, seemed to slip into outright madness.

The end of power for the Ceausescu family came amid blood, flames and chaos. In one swift, delirious and terror-filled day, the Ceausescus fled in the morning by helicopter from a presidential palace that was ablaze at nightfall. Gunfire from Ceausescu's dreaded Securitate, his Praetorian Guard of secret police, raked the streets, directed at crowds that had gathered to celebrate. These gunmen, the once all-powerful enforcers of Ceausescu's strange concept of "socialist progress," were left amid the rubble of his vision.

It was a frightful climax, and it was all the creation of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Or, as Romanians called them, Him and Her.

They were the architects of a security apparatus the likes of which, experts say, was rivaled only by that of Kim Il Sung in North Korea. It was a security apparatus that was built up alongside the military, which it outnumbered, most estimates say, 700,000 to 180,000. It employed prostitutes and bellhops and eavesdroppers of every description--professional and amateur--as well as bodyguards and thugs. It was a system, as a frightened Romanian woman told a reporter two years ago, that was based on sickness.

"We are all becoming sick here," she had said. "All of us. All of us except the 'new man' and 'new woman' "--she meant Ceausescu's vision of a new socialist humanity--"maybe them most of all."

Ceausescu's new socialist humanity lived, for most of the last decade, at the center of a huge national lie, the focal point of which was the fiction of public adoration for Ceausescu himself, for his ubiquitous six-foot portraits and bannered slogans, his endlessly televised (and carefully staged) tours of factories, his scheme to bulldoze about 20% of Bucharest into oblivion to make way for a grand avenue of government buildings, his increasingly pitiful attempts to portray himself as an international statesman and peacemaker.

In the midst of all this, Romanians have lived since the early 1980s at a level of privation that is unique in Europe. In a drive to retire an international debt of $11 billion and thus free himself from any outside pressure, Ceausescu deprived his people of food, heat and light.

Two winters ago, Romanians in Bucharest lined up for hours to buy plastic bags of chicken feet, or, if they were lucky, a chunk of unspeakable gray sausage. The rest of the chicken, so far as anyone knew, was sent out for export, to raise money to retire the national debt.

The markets were not only barren of meat. Potatoes were virtually nonexistent. Employees at state-owned supermarkets tossed into the display cases frozen bundles of carrots and other root vegetables, mixed with small chunks of pork fat. Customers could buy these or go hungry.

Ceausescu's legions of official explainers, such as the editor of the party newspaper, Scintea, would tell visitors that this wasn't a real problem: Romanians have a penchant for hoarding food at home. And not only that, the straight-faced editor said, they are chronic overeaters.

In 1987, when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev came for a visit, a supermarket was stocked full for his approval. When the limousines pulled away, police could not control the crowds that stormed the market to get at the food.

In the winter, Romanians were allowed 35 kilowatt hours of electricity, resulting in rooms dim with 40-watt bulbs. Power usage over that limit resulted in electricity bills that exceeded the average monthly pay. The city of Bucharest, with nearly 2 million inhabitants, was blacked out at night like a city at war, with only every fifth street light turned on.

The resulting gloom was fittingly sinister. Foreign visitors, especially journalists, were conspicuously followed. Watchers were everywhere. As in some heavy-handed movie portrayal of a police state, agents eavesdropped from behind the potted palms in hotel lobbies, lurked in shadowed doorways, listened in on bugged telephones. They were, of course, meant to be conspicuous, for that was an intended element of fear, and fear was the controlling mechanism for Ceausescu's march toward "socialist perfection."

By and large it worked. No organized opposition was allowed to form. Instead, individual human rights activists--such as Doina Cornea of Cluj, a fired university teacher, and a handful of former government officials placed under house arrest--persisted in efforts to get the truth to the outside world.

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