Friday, June 22, 2007

From the Tellechea Archives: Nadia's Defection Signalled Ceausescu's End (1990)

How the Fall of Communism was Presaged by a Shepherd and a Gymnast

By: Manuel A. Tellechea
The New York Tribune
Commentary Section, p. 9
January 4, 1990

Even 14 years after her Olympic triumphs, Nadia Comaneci's timing is still perfect. She couldn't have picked a better time to defect from her native Romania. Her country was still very much in the clutches of Nicolae Ceausescu, the last committed (and committable) Stalinist in power in Eastern Europe. Ceausescu — who declared war on God, man and nature, and for 25 years got the better of all three in a country without liberty, churches or trees — was then busy razing 7000 villages and erasing 2000 years of Romanian history (what did it matter since he himself represented the "culmination" of Romanian history?) His scorched earth policy actually preceeded perestroika, and therefore cannot be called a response to it, though the continuation of that policy in spite of perestroika does speak of Ceausescu's determination not to surrender ideological purity on the altar of political expediency.

Ceausescu refused to accept the fact that Romania would be entering the 21st century as essentially a rural country; so in an orgy of bulldozing he proposed to turn his bucolic country into a vast canvas for urban (mis)planning. The orgy of construction that was to follow in short the orgy of destruction onever came. In the meantime, homeless peasants waited in uncertainty for the promised cities to be built.

For Ceausescu, Romania was not a nation of sheepherders who craved green pastures, but of experimental automatons which functioned best on cement and steel. Nadia Comaneci was not the only Romanian to flee on the brink of that nightmare; nor, in my opinion, the most newsworthy (though newsworthy is as newspapers do). According to an Associated Press release dated Dec. 6, an unidentified Romanian shepherd was able to sneak over the border into Kekescsaba, Hungary, with 1,170 sheep, 4 horses, 3 donkeys and 9 dogs. Nadia left her 26 gold medals behind for fear these would identify her as Nadia Camaneci. I wonder if the man thought his sheep would identify him as a shepherd?

Shepherds were a more threatened species in Ceausescu's Romania than gymnasts. Mark you: when shepherds rebel, liberty will follow. It is not surprising that Ceausescu was not able to recognize such an omen. He was the only unromantic soul in a romantic land. The only truths he acknowledged were his own platitudes, and reality for him had to be strained through the sieve of illusion.

Ceausescu believed that the future of Communism lay with its aspiring dinastic clans: the Kims of North Korea, the Castros of Cuba and the Ceausescus of Romania. He was wrong only insofar as his own family. That Communism should survive in isolation in "backwater" redoubts like Cuba and North Korea might be expected (though not on that account less bemoaned). But for it to continue to fester against all odds in the midst of Europe, engulfed on all sides by nascent democracies, required the opposite of isolation — a war within and without Romania's borders. Ceausescu, fortunately for the Romanian people, was too late in shaking off his self-imposed isolation.

Instead, he tried to counter life with theatre, without realizing that theatre could become a stage for life. In what was to prove his last hurrah (or, rather, his first non-hurrah), the dictator gathered the party cadres in the public square, distributed 6 foot portraits of his 5 feet self for them to hold aloft, and ordered them to cheer. They did not cheer. After 45 years, the Romanian people had discovered that their lips and there hearts could actually be synchronized. Television and radio transmissions were cut when they started to boo him. The shocked dictator retreated into his palace. The jackbooted goons in the crowd opened fire indiscriminately.

The old cliché had finally come to pass: a popular revolution broke out in a public square. The last cherished myth of the Communist elite was shattered in a moment; Communists governed not only without the consent of the people, but against their wishes. Was this was Sartre meant by "participatory democracy of the public square": applaud and live, boo and die?

Ceausescu had no problem making war on his own people before the eyes of the world; nor was an invasion of at least one of the fraternal socialist countries (preferably Hungary) beyond him. In fact, a hastily arranged war with Hungary was his last option in that desperate hour. It was the fear of such an undertaking -- not the trauma of shooting at their own countrymen -- that caused the army to abandon him, though not before it had revived for one last time in the 20th century the ghastly practice of bayonetting babies.

Had he not massacred the demonstrators, Ceausescu would probably still be in power. The fear of a massacre is a more powerful deterrent than an actual massacre, which exhausts fear without extinguishing hope. In every war of independence, it is necessary that the oppressor fire the first shot. Had the U.S. delivered the uranium that Ceausescu had purchased last year — supposedly for peaceful nuclear energy purposes — the first shot might have been the last of the Romanian Revolution. Without the bomb the worst that Ceausescu could do was — quite literally — to poison the wells.

Ceausescu was a madman but he knew how to win friends and influence people in the West. The trick required only that he seem to thwart the Soviet Union — a secret which he learned from Tito and which Gorbachev learned from him. It worked well enough for Tito and Ceausescu, but best for Gorbachev because the shock-effect of a Soviet seemingly thwarting the Soviet Union is more incapacitating to the West.

Here's how Ceausescu did it: he accepted membership in the Warsaw Pact (which gave him arms), but did not allow the stationing of Soviet troops in Romania (which assured him that the West would give him anything else he wanted, even uranium). He publicly opposed the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan (which cost him nothing). He had formal diplomatic relations with Israel (which gained him much). He did not honor Soviet- or American-led boycotts of the Olympics (which boycotts he welcomed, nonetheless, because they meant a chance to win more medals).

Nothing that he did, however, endeared him more to the West than paying off his country's foreign debt years ahead of schedule. The debts were incurred in building his palace complex, a city within a city, whose only occupants were the Family Ceausescu. Well, naturally, the First Family had to be housed in marble before the rest of the country were allowed to move into their pre-cast concrete shelters. How did Ceausescu pay for his palace? He saved on money and fuel (or, rather, everybody in Romania did except the Ceausescus). Specifically he committed 95% of all foodstuffs grown in Romania to servicing the foreign debt, leaving the people to nourish themselves on offal sausage, sawdust bread and paraffin butter. He conserved on energy by limiting daily consumption of electricity to a couple of hours per day.

In a country where every telephone was tapped by law and all typewriters had to be registered with the secret police (which also distributed and collected the ribbons, which were transcribed and measured), the Dark Ages had descended on Romania long before the lights were turned off. The world, however, never noticed the darkness, perhaps because of Nadia Comenici's radiant smile.

Like Hitler at the Berlin Games, Ceausescu used sports to prove the ethnic superiority of his people. He was not interested in showing-up the world, just his "fraternal" arch-enemy, Hungary. If he managed to best Hungary at the Olympics, it was for him a justification of his regime. (I have no space or inclination to explain the historical basis of this animus. Let us just say that Romania once kidnapped a couple of million Hungarians and won't give them back).

The centerpiece of Romania's Olympic programme was little Nadia Comenici, who won three gold medals and achieved seven perfect scores (including the first "10" ever recorded) at the 1976 Olympics. Ceausescu "honored" Nadia by offering up his own son. What could be more natural than Romania's "greatest son" coupled with Romania's greatest daughter? The affaire did not last. Nicu — the playboy of the Eastern word — was not ready to settle down. Nicu, for his papa's entertainment, was soon back raping women on tables at state banquets.

The end of her relationship with Nicu was not the end of Nadia (as it sometimes proved for other less fortunate women). She was still a "Hero of Socialist Labor," her country's youngest. Her family was given one of the first pre-fabricated concrete houses and allowed to use as much electricity as it wanted. She was even allowed to travel abroad; that is, until she tried unsuccessfully to defect. Even then, life was far from difficult for her. She was still the second most famous Romanian in the world after Vlad the Impaler (aka Count Dracula). At home, Ceausescu's pet dog eclipsed her; but abroad, Nadia was the most famous contemporary Romanian (the second most famous was her coach, Bela Karoly). As such she could not be persecuted and was pampered as much as anyone outside the Ceausescu clan. Granted, she was trapped in Romania; but at least hers was a gilded cage.

When Ceausescu ruled, nobody needed an excuse to escape from Romania, but if Nadia ever wavered in her determination, recent events in Eastern Europe provided her with the incentive. The people of the Eastern bloc are not only rebelling against Commmunism but against privilege. Communism's fleet-footed and fair-haired ambassadors of sport, who for years had enjoyed perks which the proletarians could not resent because they did not realize until recently that such perks existed, are now as popular in their respective countries as the oligarchs whose "toy soldiers" they once were. By defecting before the fall of Ceausescu (which she foresaw better than Ceausescu), Nadia could remain a heroine to her people. She would not have long remained a heroine in the West if she had been regarded as a villain at home.

If she had trusted in the survival of Ceausescu in a sea of perestroika, she might have found herself cut adrift. In their hour of victory the Romanian people may not have looked favorably on poor little Nadia, who, the truth be told, received very little for what she was forced to surrender. For every person there is an obituary-optimum time: there is a time to die and a time to die in the headlines. Nadia simply availed herself of her defection-optimum time. She did commit a mistake by defecting with somebody else's husband whom she hailed as her "savior." Her mistake was to assume that Americans would forgive in foreigners what they don't even censure anymore in themselves. If Nadia meant to be a homebreaker, she should not have come to this nation of homebreakers; but even that, in time, will be forgotten.

But although she has forfeited for now any claim to American sympathy; she has not, however, exhausted entirely American curiosity. And American curiosity is more valuable to her than American sympathy. At her first press conference, Nadia expressed the wish to bring her life to the big screen. I recall that has been done already. But, perhaps this time, we may get the truth about Romania (without which there can be no truth about Nadia). The problem is that the truth will come 25 years too late for Ceausescu's victims — what Nadia jumped for and ran from no longer exists. Anti-Communist freedom fighters are not heroes in Hollywood until they are as dead as the denizens of the Killing Fields (if then). Marxist rebels, however, will always get sympathetic treatment while battling democracy (e.g. the FMLM in El Salvador) or after they have crushed it (e.g. Castro and the Sandinistas). Her impromptu defection, more because of who she is than because of what the defection itself represented, was covered widely by the liberal media and became this year's Christmas story of redemption. Inevitably, as an element of her story, the "real" Romania and the plight of other Romanian dissidents was mentioned en passant.

Troubling as it is that it took Nadia's defection to bring their plight to the attention of the media and the U.S. public, it is far more disturbing that the U.S. government has yet to acquaint itself with the "real Romania." President Bush all but begged Gorbachev to "restore order" in Romania after the fall of Ceausescu just as Bush himself had done in Panama! The Romanian people want freedom not other variants of Communism. Bush proposes to give them perestroika, which is nothing more than the postponement of real freedom if not the negation of it. It is yet another villainy committed by an American president, which, like Kennedy's betrayal of the freedom fighters at the Bay of Pigs, is also a go-ahead for a Soviet invasion.

Perestroika is "diet freedom" (or "no-calorie freedom"). Romanians wants "the real thing" and that's something that Soviet tanks will never bring even if splattered with perestroika grafitti. Only the elimination of the tyrant's legacy can accomplish this and it is the Romanian people who must do it.


Romania, now a full-fledged democracy, was admitted to NATO in 2004 and joined the European Union on January 1, 2007.


Charlie Bravo said...

Great article, Manuel.

Agustin Farinas said...

the battle between the Siguranza Secret police and the Army in Bucharest at the time of the fall of the Communist regime, that lasted for weeks, was the thing that gave me hope that some day the Army in Cuba would fight the State Security and the pretorian guard Castro has, in a similar battle. But the regime in Cuba has bestowed so many privileges on the Army upper strata that I am not so sure now that will ever take place. However I don't know where the FAR allegiance and loyalty would be if they were ordered to fire on demonstrators in the streets of Havana. If Raul was so sure of their loyalty, why was he shown himself wearing a bulletproof vest recently when he was addressing them? When I saw that picture on the news, I suspected all was not well within the FAR. After all, I am sure there are a few officers who remember the 1989 shooting of Ochoa and others and may be resentful of that.

Charlie Bravo said...

The Seguridad del Estado, and the Army in Cuba, both of them are controlled by a watertight clique of raulistas. After the executions of Ochoa and the others, the first thing that happened was the Causa 2/89 where they purged all the upper echelons of the Seguridad del Estado (some of them died in strange circumstances in jail) and all the top brass was replaced with members of raul's own praetorian guard. Ramiro Darth Valdes was given a "house arrest light" or in jocular habanero "plan pijama" even though he was not not taken in front of a tribunal. Apparently, he blackmailed the government by saying that if anything happened to him, all their secrets would be vented out by his agents abroad.

Agustin Farinas said...

it was a revelation to me to see Raul with a bulletproof vest clearly under his military uniform in a speech made to a FAR audience. The first question that popped into my head was:
Gee, why is he wearing a bulletproof vest to face an audience of his own high officers? Fear of assasination or retribution for the purge of his own military? I was puzzled by that picture to say the least. Because I figured that he was addressing a safe aundience as far as he is concern. Yet he took the precaution of hiding under that protection. Why? I was left very puzzled.

Charlie Bravo said...

I don't think he wears a bullet proof vest, he has spinal problems (no spine basically) and wears a corset from time to time.
A bullet proof vest is something that not even kasstro has worn, because they love the effectism of not "being concerned".

Vana said...

When the Berlin wall fell, I had hope that it would also happen in Cuba, when the Romanians freed themselves, again I had hope, but for us it was not to be.
If as Charlie says the top brass are all raulistas, then that freedom for us is not to be quite yet, but Agustin, I still have hope, for that is all I have left.

Vana said...

Charlie, am having trouble getting into your blog, it tells me, this page cannot be displayed, are you as well having a problem?

Fantomas said...

manuel where is the review of my blog...Iam getting impaciente already ... dont make me havetobeg youforit.... in that caseyouwillco mply ..wont you?

Agustin Farinas said...

patience my friend, be patient all good things come to those who wait. When you blog is finally reviewed, I have a feeling you may not be so happy or joyful as you are now.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Yes, fantomas, do be patient. I promised that I would publish your review this Monday. I hope that you will promise to reprint the review regardless of content. That will certainly show that you are not only unfettered by Val's influence but Val's superior. We shall see.

Fantomas said...

I know for sure that the Review will be in my favor ..i have no doubts whatsoever. My readers expect the final results for Monday

Agustin no te adelantes al review, creo que le haces daño a manuel con tus predicciones.

Fantomas said...



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