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20 years after communism's collapse, Romanians urge Cubans: 'Don't give up'
CubaNews / November 2009

By Larry Luxner

Human-rights activist Mircea Toma will never forget his first and only trip to communist Cuba.

Toma, part of an eight-member Eastern European delegation that also included representatives from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, visited the island 10 years ago, in a trip secretly arranged by a Washington-based democracy foundation. The visit happened to coincide with the highly publiclized 9th Ibero-American Summit in Havana, and a small group of dissidents was trying to “generate some visibility,” as he put it.

“We were close to one of these groups. They were trying to organize a rally but this wasn’t possible since most of them had been arrested that same morning,” Toma told CubaNews.

“What happened next was, a column of workers appeared in the street singing. It was a very nice demonstration organized by Castro’s people. The only dissident remaining decided to go speak to the journalists,” he said. “It took five seconds for the police to react. Two guys threw clothes on the TV camera, two others beat the guy, then pushed the journalists into a side street so nobody could see anything.”

The event gave Toma a rare insight into the limits of political freedom in Cuba — the one few tourists see.

Toma, president of Active Watch, was one of many prominent Romanians interviewed during a visit last month by CubaNews to this Eastern European nation of 21 million.

On Nov. 22, voters here will decide whether to replace incumbent President Traian Basescu, backed by the Democratic Liberal Party, with one of four challengers of various other parties.

Such an election would’ve been unthinkable 20 years ago, when Romania was still ruled by Nicolae Ceausescu, one of the worst dictators of the 20th century.

Ceausescu ran this Oregon-sized country with an iron fist from 1965 until his overthrow on Dec. 21, 1989, and execution by firing squad four days later.

In the two decades since then, Romania has emerged from its darkest days, when citizens could be thrown in jail for listening to the Voice of America on shortwave radio.

In March 2004, Romania was admitted into NATO, and on Jan. 1, 2007, the long-suffering country — along with Bulgaria — celebrated its entry into the European Union.

One of the poorest countries in Europe, Romania now has an annual per-capita GDP of $5,500, and the economy grew by 7.1% last year, says Lucian Claudiu Anghel, chief economist at BCR, one of Romania’s leading banks.

Bucharest, whose streets were once filled with propaganda posters glorifying the hated Ceausescu, today is choked with traffic and pedestrians listening to iPods. The capital city’s skyline has lots of Soviet-style apartment buildings and other eyesores — but also glass towers where companies like IBM and Oracle have their regional headquarters.

Office Depot now runs a huge call-center operation in the Transylvanian capital of Cluj-Napoca, which like most other major Romanian cities now boasts gleaming shopping malls to rival any in the United States.

Within four or five years, Romania will adopt the euro as its national currency — completing its entry into what has become the world’s most powerful economic bloc. Anca Harasim is executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Romania.

Like Toma, she visited Cuba 10 years ago, but in this case as part of a student-exchange program that also included briefings at the Canadian Embassy in Havana as well as the U.S. Interests Section.

The difference between Bucharest and Havana was like night and day, said Harasim, who later wrote a scholarly paper comparing the two communist systems.

“If you would have come here prior to the 1989 revolution to talk to politicians in an official meeting, they would have given you all the crap about how great the system was. But if you met them for dinner, over a glass of wine, they would have given you a different story,” she explained. “In Cuba, students and parliamentarians — even over a glass of wine — were very committed to the system. They really believed it.”

Harasim recalled how she and her friends listened to Radio Free Europe in the evening. “We were living in a prison, so the only way to develop intellectually was through education and culture. We didn’t have access to other temptations,” Harasim told CubaNews. “People were oppressed because of all the indoctrination. You didn’t have dissidents who would fight against the system because that would have been pure suicide.”

Toma estimates that 40,000 Romanians were killed by the Ceausescu regime.

“Tens of thousands of people were put into forced labor camps. This created such huge fear that the Securitate [Romania’s secret police] didn’t have to do anything more. The fear was so deeply rooted that you did not dare make a move,” he said. “Under Ceausescu, there was no direct physical aggression against dissidents. There was no dissent, period.”

Daniel Apostol, editor-in-chief of The Money Channel — a TV program on economics, business and personal finance — says he can’t see what good half a century of communist rule did for his country.

“My grandfather was an officer in the Romanian army. During World War II, he had to swear an oath of loyalty to his country and his king. He fought against the Russians and the Germans,” Apostol told us over lunch at a restaurant in Bucharest’s historic district.

“In 1947, the communists came and forced King Michael to leave the country. Some officers were made to swear again, this time to the Communist Party, and he said, ‘no, I have only one honor, to my country and my king.’

“For this sentence, he was kicked out of the military, all because he refused to swear allegiance. From an officer in the army, he became a substitute teacher of small children, and as a result, my own father couldn’t go to university.”

Apostol says the worst legacy of communism in Romania is that “we lost the meaning of how to respect each other as human beings. That’s the feeling I have after 50 years of communism in this country. Money I can lose and make again, but I cannot get back my time. We’ve really lost this sense of privacy. That’s why we are struggling so much.”

Apostol remembers clearly the day communism came tumbling down in Romania. He was 19 years old at the time and trying desperately to find a job.

“That day, the 21st of December 1989, I was at a meeting of the Communist Youth organization. My father was at the meeting too, with 100 workers. Someone came up and said something to the guys on the panel, and suddenly they got upset, ended the meeting and sent us home, just like that.

“When I got home, my mother was watching Ceausescu speaking on TV, and there were people screaming at him. I thought it was a joke. I didn’t realize what was actually happening.”

In May of this year, the Romanian Institute for Investigation of Crimes Under Communism in Bucharest co-sponsored a seminar entitled “Cuba Under Raúl: Domestic and Foreign Policies.” The event was co-sponsored by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. Speakers included former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, Ambassador Luís Lauredo and Marius Oprea, advisor to Romania’s foreign minister.

Cuba’s new ambassador to Romania, Marta Caridad Fajardo, made herself unavailable for comment for this story, despite several calls to the Cuban Embassy in Bucharest.

But Sever Voinescu, secretary of Romania’s chamber of deputies, says there just isn’t that much to talk about.

“During the Ceausescu regime, Romania had very good relations with Cuba, but there’s been a downgrading [of ties] since then,” said Voinescu, interviewed in the monstrous — some say hideous — Palace of the Parliament built by Ceausescu that now ranks as the largest structure in Europe and the second-largest in the world after the Pentagon.

“Sometimes people like me with a very pronounced civic attitude protest and say things against communism and against Castro. But this is a very superficial phenomenon in Ro-mania,” he told us. “Usually, we say we have good relations with Cuba, which is OK be-cause there is nothing much on the agenda.”

Ioana Avadani, executive director of the Center for Independent Journalism, is worried that young Romanians now have freedom but don’t quite know what to do with it. A general sense of pessimism pervades the country, despite the dramatic gains that have been made in personal freedom in the 20 years since Ceausescu’s overthrow.

“Immediately after 1989, we all had something to challenge, something to blame on somebody else. But now, people who lived under communism have exhausted their desire to express themselves — not because there is nothing to express, but because they don’t feel it’s worth it,” she said. “They don’t think things will change.”

“The younger generation, including my 20-year-old son, doesn’t feel obliged in any way to those who lived under communism. He says, ‘this was your life, this is my life. I can be sympathetic, but don’t ask me to feel guilty. I was born in a free world.’ By the age of 4, he had his first computer, and by age 9 he had visited MIT in Boston. He was exposed to complete freedom.”

Asked what advice she would give young Cubans trying to create an independent civil society, Avadani said the most important thing — aside from scrawling graffiti on walls and writing subversive songs and books — is to take advantage of technology.

“The government does not know how to deal with the Internet. There’s a lot of freedom on the Internet,” she said. “The idea is to get around the stupidity and ignorance of the government. That’s what I find most liberating.”

Avadani told CubaNews “we had a funny moment in 2003, when our parliament wanted to declare aerial photos to be classified information. One of [the deputies] was a landowner, so I took some aerial pictures of his plot of land and put them online and said, ‘OK, put me in jail — me and the other six billion people out there who can see this.’”

And if young Cuban bloggers like Yoani Sánchez, who was roughed up by Cuban agents in Havana earlier this month need any inspiration, Avadani suggests they look to nearby authoritarian regimes like ethnically troubled Moldova, where political instability seems to deepen by the day, and Armenia, which saw violent demonstrations in the wake of the disputed February 2008 presidential elections.

“Just ask the Moldovans, who used mirror sites, or the Armenians, who communicated what was happening in Yerevan last year via mobile phones,” she said. “If there is technology, there’s a way to get the information out.

“History has taught us that with new technologies, there’s no way any longer to control information,” Avadani added. “Of course, the [Castro regime] can be very brutal. They can isolate the country, but for how long?”

Adds Cristian Ghinea, director of the Romanian Center for European Policies:

“I’d advise Cubans to enjoy their freedom once they get it, because after a couple of years they’ll move into a totally different world and forget about this freedom. They won’t enjoy it anymore but take it for granted."

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