Birth and Death in Romania, October 1986
In the last years of the regime, Pavel Câmpeanu, a prominent sociologist and a lifelong leftist and former prison cellmate of Nicoale Ceauşescu during World War II managed to smuggle out this article, which was published in The New York Review of Books. For his safety, the editors did not publish his name since it was known that the Romanian secret service was quick to punish, even assassinate dissidents, sometimes after they had fled the country. They suggested that the author was a visitor to Romania, rather than one of the country’s own citizens.
Instead of theorizing the origins and future of “real existing socialism,” which Câmpeanu did in his many books and articles, this piece is inundated by details of the mundane: the severe shortage of food and basic goods, the dysfunctional management of the economy from top to bottom, the almost omnipresent police and secret services spying on the citizens they were supposed to serve, down to the most intimate places of women’s bodies. The dismal reality of everyday life in Ceauşescu’s Romania is recorded faithfully here, and thus speaks for itself.
This source is a part of the The Romanian Revolution of 1989 teaching module.
Birth and Death in Romania
By Name Withheld (The following is by a writer who frequently travels in Eastern Europe and whose name must be withheld).
It was May in Transylvania. The days had been mild, the evenings cold, and the Romanian people, as much obsessed with their situation as anxious to forget it, were watching for Halley's Comet with childlike anticipation. Their gaze was suddenly, brutally brought back to earth by the events in Chernobyl (a name somewhat avoided by the local press). Faced as they were with a danger unknown, inexorable, and impossible to defend against, the special quality of imagination that seems endemic to the Romanian people was less an asset than a liability. Stores of tinned goods that had lain about unsold for years disappeared overnight and when the crop of spring vegetables that had been dreamed of through a worse than austere winter was finally harvested, few were willing to eat it. Everyone had his own theory about the effects of radiation, a subject on which official discretion served only to make the panic more acute. Then the public mood shifted. Late into the night everyone stayed up, neighbors from time to time relaying this or that impression from one window to the next, until finally an excited group of people converged in Bucharest, shouting at the top of their lungs. Fallout was forgotten (at least for a night), and there was a positively Mediterranean sense of joy: for the first time a Romanian soccer team had won a game in the competition for the European Cup!
Two old friends of mine stayed on the sidelines. After three years I had found them visibly changed, each in his own way. The more unbending of the two was becoming more rigid in his views, the more flexible seemed at times incoherent. Romania itself had changed considerably, it too in its own way: the three years seemed to have been the culmination of a much longer social ordeal that had left its mark on the country. One of my friends said that to understand the recent developments I must first consult a decree by the Council of State of the Romanian Socialist Republic issued on October 10, 1981. The exact text ran as follows:
It shall constitute illegal trading activities and, in accordance with the terms set down in the Penal Code, shall be punishable by six months to five years in prison, to purchase from any state commercial center or cooperative store, either with a view to hoarding or in any quantity that exceeds the requirements of a family for a period of a month, oil, sugar, wheat or corn flour, rice, coffee and all other foodstuffs the hoarding of which might affect the interests of other consumers and proper provisioning of the population.
Since then, he said, the situation has changed drastically. Coffee can no longer be bought by private citizens and has been replaced by an ersatz substance disapproved of by physicians, which the public, guessing at the ingredients, has nicknamed "henna." Meat, buttermilk, and bread are rationed in most districts, sugar and cooking oil throughout the country—and the ration is much more generous than the shops charged with distributing them can supply.
Since 1968, it should be explained, Romania has been divided into more than forty districts, each with a Party secretary, who is its supreme head. He is responsible for delivering a quota of food from his district to the central government—a task that must give him bad dreams. For it poses an insoluble problem: if he distributes locally less food than is called for by the plan—as he is virtually obliged to do—he will be popular with the authorities but held in contempt by the people of the district; and if he tries to help the population get more food, he will be unpopular with the authorities. Everyone has a different approach to the same dilemma—for even in the CP no district secretary is quite like another—and this psychological diversity makes for diversity in the distribution of food shortages throughout the country. In Cluj or Pitesti the situation, I was told, is frankly horrible; in Sibiu or Vilcea it is merely wretched. Thousands go from district to district on shopping excursions from which they often return empty-handed.
Romania seems unique in many ways. It is the only European country in which one can be sentenced to five years in prison for buying excessive quantities of food that is generally unavailable to the public. It is also, in my experience, the only such country in which the legal work week is forty-six hours and the urban population often spends three to four hours a day shopping for groceries. In Romania President Ceausescu takes upon himself to compose lyrics for a new national anthem, rather than entrusting the task to a poet. And in spite of a republican form of government of which he is the constitutional head, the president carries a scepter and is grooming his son as his successor.
Workers often spend entire days waiting for raw materials that their factory cannot obtain. If they leave the premises without permission or bring alcoholic beverages, or cigarettes, or lighters, or matches onto the shop floor, they are regarded as having broken the law and can receive prison sentences from three months up to two years (Decree 400 of December 29, 1981, Article 18).
The average wage, according to experts I talked to, is less than one fifth of the average Common Market wage, while the minimum wage is ignored. The state each month withholds a percentage of wages that can be returned at the end of the year only if the government's economic goals have been met—something that rarely happens.
Virtually every business establishment has (in addition to spies) a member of the Secret Police with a permanent desk, who reports to his superiors on the proper running of the business. All typewriters must be registered and presented for inspection at the police station every year to show that the keys have not been tampered with.
Perhaps this list is enough to suggest that the special quality of daily life in Romania bears little resemblance to Western perceptions of it. When Americans think of Romania they think of the 1984 Summer Olympics and the gymnastics team—even the US secretary of state on the occasion of his visit this spring mentioned this; about less heroic activities he said nothing. Some Westerners (those with good memories) tend to remember that, under President Ceausescu, Romania refused to take part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. They forget that what made the act possible was something that happened in 1958, before Ceausescu, when Soviet troops withdrew from Romania's borders. This was an obscure event at the time but one that laid the foundation for Romania's military independence. From that moment Romania's foreign policy changed radically. It was not under Ceausescu, but under his predecessor that Romania refused to subordinate the nation's economy to the Soviet bloc's COMECON. The regime refused to break relations with China and the Romanian Central Committee adopted a declaration of openly denying the Soviet Union's right to control other countries.
Before he died in 1965, Gheorghiu-Dej appointed Ceausescu as the new head of the Party. In spite of the accepted impression in the West, the new leader was not the father of Romania's independence but its beneficiary and heir. His job was to preserve and cherish it for the good of the Romanian people. Twenty years were all he needed to transform it into a disaster.
Rumania, with an area and a population twice as large as Bulgaria, and a much greater wealth of resources, seems to have been able to mould an economy that is more successful and prosperous than that of its smaller ally.
—H. Gordon Skilling,
Communism, National and International (University of Toronto Press, 1964), p. 65.
GNP per capita in 1980, in US dollars:
(Source: World Bank)
Among the innumerable projects that Khrushchev set in motion, one that was never fully abandoned by his various successors was that of so-called "economic integration." Soviet "integration" called for reorganizing the Soviet-controlled territories into coherent "economic regions," without respect to their national borders. It hinged on a system of economic specialization, and "international division of labor between brother nations." "Specialization" meant favoring the development of those economic activities in which a country already excelled—a reasonable idea from the standpoint of the new economic community; but from the standpoint of long-term national strategy, one that meant serious problems for some of the countries involved. For Bulgaria and Romania, for instance, it meant specialization in agricultural production at the risk of slowing down their already slow industrial development; both countries were to have the status of an agrarian hinterland for the more industrially advanced members of COMECON.
The Bulgarians bowed to Khrushchev and risked perpetuating their country's economic backwardness; this left Romania the sole opponent of economic integration. Profiting from the general confusion in the Kremlin during the early 1960s, Romania managed to resist the Soviet project. It was during the years when the Romanians were fighting this battle in COMECON that the first articles openly critical of the USSR appeared in Romania.
First set up in the USSR under Stalin, the overall model established in the countries of Eastern Europe relied on centralization under Party control not only to shape their political systems but also their social structures. Centralization exists in all those countries to varying degrees. During the last twenty years, when most of the Eastern European countries have been making attempts to relax internal centralization, Romania has taken a diametrically opposite path and has used its relative political independence from the USSR to reproduce an exaggerated version of the Soviet social model. The other states of the regions—Bulgaria, Hungary, etc.—have accepted that they are politically dependent on the USSR while managing to put distance between themselves and its social model. As a result, Romania today is the Eastern European country that is both the most independent with regard to foreign policy and the most Stalinist in its political and social structures; indeed, it could be called the most eloquent embodiment of anti-Soviet Stalinism. The country's bankrupt economy is not the result of its political independence, but rather of its own extreme form of Stalinism.
In effect, autocratic Romania has refused to allow the Soviets to impose their social model on it, but it has voluntarily imitated that model, and in a markedly more retrogressive form. In doing so the regime apparently decided that the best way to avoid unfavorable specialization in the national economy was to avoid any specialization at all. Ignoring the economic cost, Romania set out to diversify its industrial production to the point where it would be virtually an autarchy. Autarchy, untenable for world powers, was thought to be perfect for small countries.
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.
Unfortunately, however, the rapid expansion of the Romanian steel industry occurred at a time when established Western iron and steel industries were sharply cutting their production and the international steel market was collapsing. As a result, today Romania is suffering from an imbalance between its capacity to produce steel and its ability to make use of it. A newcomer has a hard time finding out a place for itself on the market when even old-timers are over-producing. To do so successfully, there is not much choice: one either relies on technology to improve the quality of the product or one relies on economic measures to bring about a substantial reduction in price. Thus it was hardly surprising to see Romanian producers being accused of dumping steel on the market, and the American market at that. The Romanian iron and steel industry went right on producing mountains of steel that its domestic industries were unable to digest and that the international market did not seem keen to acquire.
When one speaks of civil rights in the West, one is usually thinking of freedom of speech or freedom of assembly, and not the right to keep oneself warm. Nevertheless, particularly during the winter, the right to keep warm becomes the obsession of most Romanians—the point where all the other rights invoked during the rest of the year tend to become forgotten. Thousands of people deprived of the right of free expression seem utterly indifferent to the fact. Very few remain indifferent about losing their right to keep warm.
Romania has a longstanding tradition of urban landscaping and Romanians have always taken pride in their public spaces. On winter nights, however, under the cover of darkness, people have taken to attacking the large trees that line the cities' streets, cutting off huge branches, and dragging them back to their icy homes on their children's sleds. Such behavior suggests they actually have some means for burning the wood—a store or furnace—which is more than most people have.
The story I was told about Grigore Hagiu, a prominent poet, and his wife Gabriela Cressin, a well-known statistician, is illuminating here. Both were in their forties. They were at home on one of the unbearable January days in the winter of 1985 when the temperature sank to minus thirty degrees centigrade by the window thermometers and minus twenty degrees by the radio. After midnight a thin stream of gas appeared in the kitchen. The couple sat down by the stove and tried to get warm. They fell asleep. Some time in the night as they slept the gas went off and came back on again. The couple went on sleeping. They never woke up.
The director of the Museum of Romanian literature, Alexandru Oprea, also died in this way—and so, I am told, did many others. "No Gulag, no death squads, no torture or arrests," one of my friends said. "They died in a state of liberty and in peace, dreaming of a summer they would never see. The human rights organizations remain frozen on the issue of warmth: it isn't the right itself but its suppression that turns death into a political act."
The story of Gheorghe Emil Ursu was quite different. The descendant of one of the leaders of the peasant revolts in the eighteenth century in Transylvania, a friend of many poets, he was also an engineer, and he was nearing sixty when, during the heatless winter of 1985, he was called in by the police for questioning about his writings. It was a strange interrogation. The first phase lasted from January to August. Every evening he would show up for questioning; the rest of the time he was at liberty, making his living by day. Then, at the beginning of August, the authorities let him go; whereupon he resumed his former habit of returning home at night and going to bed. On September 21 this idyll came to an end when Ursu disappeared mysteriously. The telephone call informing his family that Ursu was ill and in prison arrived in November. A second, announcing his death, came that same day.
To be thrown in prison for what one has put on paper and die there mysteriously has become a banal fate in many parts of the world today. Ursu's story had an unexpected twist. When the police, on January 3, 1985, confiscated something he had written, it was not a manifesto inciting the people to revolt, or an iconoclastic roman à clef, but a private journal. Can one, in this case, still say that Ursu died for expressing his opinions? Ursu's crime apparently consisted not of having expressed his opinions but simply of having had them.
More than anything else my friends wanted me to write about birth and death. In 1966 the new regime in Romania adopted somewhat Draconian methods for bringing about a sharp and sudden increase in a birthrate that, by European standards, was already reasonably high. Before long virtually all measures for birth control were banned. At their workplace many women have to submit to a monthly examination to see if they are pregnant or not. If they are, they know they must have a baby within nine months or risk prosecution. Such measures were the first sign that the scope of Romania's new policies for preserving its independence and standing up to the USSR had widened so as to include the most intimate experiences of private life. The clear and persuasive rhetoric of the new program did its job; equally effective was the minute description of the heavy penalties reserved for those who refused to take part in it. According to the statistics, the number of infants rose from 273,687 in 1966 to 527,764 in 1967. (Under Romanian law, incidentally, no abortion can be performed unless an official from the ministry of justice is present to certify that the abortion was spontaneous and not induced. The word of the doctor is not enough. But the official, not trusting his own competence, may not show up. Even if the woman is having a hemorrhage the doctor may not act alone and in some cases the woman may die. This even happened, I was told, to the assistant of the man responsible for the law, the minister of health.)
That such policies were not a response to any demographic crisis in Romania is suggested by the available statistics. In 1965, the natural rate of increase in population per one thousand people was 6 in Romania, as opposed to 2.4 in Hungary, for example, and 3 in East Germany. It took nine months to double the number of newborn babies: but more than six years to double the number of gynecologists, obstetricians, pediatricians, and wet-nurses to care for them (leaving aside the availability of maternity wards, day-care centers, and pediatric hospitals, housing, and schools; or the production of powdered milk, baby clothes, and medical supplies.) In the ten years before the program was started the number of babies born each year rarely rose above 250,000. Some people I talked to believed—and of course there is no way of confirming their view—that of the 500,000 women who became mothers in 1967, over half did so against their will. But beyond such statistical questions, it seems that a kind of underground battle between the regime and the female population has been going on.
The government recently opened a new offensive in this battle. In order to prevent statistics on the subject from being used to stir up trouble, such data are no longer being released. It is understandable that Romania should designate as state secrets the number of women who have died, been made invalids for life, or been thrown into prison because they have had abortions, usually performed by quacks. The following poem, however, which may be puzzling to Westerners, has been widely circulated:
THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE
An entire people not yet on earth
Condemned to march along from birth
Foetuses from left to right
Devoid of hearing and of sight,
Foetuses on every hand
Who cannot even understand.
All march towards the tomb
Torn from some suffering mother's womb
Condemned to bear, condemned to die,
And not allowed to question why.
Published in the student magazine Amfiteatru in December 1984, along with two other poems in a similar vein, this depressing verse was signed by Ana Blandiana, a highly admired female poet. Within a very short time, thousands of copies of the poems, either Xeroxed or copied out by hand, were available everywhere—the work of a curious and widespread popular samizdat, according to the official press—and were in the hands of a good many families.
They could have been expected to understand what was being said. The offices that issue birth certificates, for example, ask parents of newborn children to return in a month. One might say that the infants find themselves face to face with a state that, after having forced them to be born, now refuses to accept them. Notwithstanding the fact that the child cries or behaves well, clamors for food or rejects it, gains weight rapidly or too slowly—despite, that is, the fact that it becomes the center of its family's life—for the state, it continues to be nonexistent for a month. Why does the state consign the infant population to oblivion, creating a clandestine army of perhaps 400,000 newborn babies every year?
The answer, so I was told, is to be found in the officially published statistics for 1966 and 1967, which show unequivocally that the explosive rise in the number of births (up 92.8 percent) was surpassed by the infant mortality rate (145.6 percent). One can force women to bring unwanted children into the world; one cannot force those children to stay there. Too many of the new arrivals depart: hence the secrecy. Without a birth certificate, no birth has officially taken place. And where no birth has officially taken place, technically there can be no death. Thus, by not issuing the certificate for the period of a month, the state avoids recognizing any deaths that have occurred in that month. The infant who has never been born in the sight of the law cannot die.
Still, while the official infant mortality rate continues to increase, the mortality rate among old people continues to become lower, as it does throughout the rest of Europe. The authorities see this as putting a heavy burden on the economy, since most old people receive pensions from the state. To relieve this burden (without modifying the law) certain adjustments have been made: the value of the average pension, for instance, was substantially reduced. That helped a bit, since it reduced the overall amount of money paid out, in pensions each month. It did not, however, lessen the number of months those reduced pensions had to be paid out, and from a budgetary standpoint, the average number of monthly checks cashed by pensioners was far too high. The only solution was to try to curtail the average period of a person's retirement—by either delaying its start or hastening its end.
The amount allocated as pensions to each district was greatly reduced. But there was no suggestion of changing or breaking the law. Someone who had attained the specified age was legally eligible to retire, and this remained true: at sixty he could apply for permission to retire. Within five years' time he might well have obtained it. That shortened the length of time a pension had to be paid for those beginning retirement; but there was still something to be done about those who were coming to the end of it. Medical assistance, for instance. Let's say some member of the family suffers a heart attack. At once a call is put through to the local health center or to a hospital. Either way, one of the questions on the other end of the phone will invariably concern the patient's age. For someone over seventy, an ambulance or a doctor will seldom be available. Physicians, I was told, have strict instructions to cut down on prescription drugs in general but especially among the aged. In each health center, doctors are watched closely to see that in prescribing a treatment they take due account of a patient's age.
Another suggestion for how to deal with the problem of older people recently came from the president himself. In his 1985 speech to the Congress of Popular Counsels he showed himself willing to offer whatever assistance might be necessary to enable older members of the urban population to move to the country with a view to taking up "some form of work conducive to physical and spiritual health." To my friends, this seemed a project designed to tear families apart and they feared it would amount to deportation and forced labor.
Before we parted, the tougher-minded of my two companions (who has a tendency to dramatize) said to me by way of farewell: "The bitter fact is that you have no need of us while we have need of you. When you are back in your own country, you might keep us in mind. Don't just screen out the hideous reality of the women and children we have been talking about, and the old and infirm who every day are peaceably being done away with. Repression isn't what you think it is. It's not the Gulag now, and it's not people being thrown in prison: it is the condition of ordinary life. So much for the lesson of present-day Romania."
NYRB Volume 33, Number 16 · October 23, 1986