Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta ("Romania's Defiance," op-ed, Aug. 25) seem to laud the leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu in steering an independent course for Romania. In focusing on this "independence," they have ignored the harsh reality of everyday life in that country and have committed an error Americans commonly make. Americans assume that because Romania is "independent," carries on extensive trade with the United States and participated in the 1984 Olympics, it must be one of the "nicer" socialist states. This is an unfortunate belief.
In 1983 and 1984, I traveled through most of Eastern Europe by rental car. The trips were for two weeks and one month respectively; both culminated with a visit to my relatives in Romania. I found the economic and political conditions in Romania to be significantly worse than any other country I visited.
Entering Romania was like driving into another century. The main roads were not even of the quality of secondary roads in East Germany, Czechoslovakia or Hungary. I saw very few cars but many horse and oxen carts even in the small city I stayed in.
Americans may have noticed the recent influx of Romanian-made clothing and textiles into the United States; surprisingly clothes of such quality do not seem available to Romanian citizens. The clothes and other consumer goods available in the shops could only be described as junk.
My first impression was of groups of elderly people bent over as they worked in farm fields miles from any villages. Yet, similar to the situation with textiles, Romania's great agricultural products don't reach Romanian dinner tables. The supermarkets appeared fully stocked, but closer examination revealed aisle after aisle of pickles and plum preserves; no surprise that the supermarkets were deserted. The closest thing I saw to meat was a couple of very fatty wursts, which appeared to contain grain and everything but meat. I learned that a meat ration is available only on two holidays. Other staples such as flour, sugar and butter are also rationed; milk is available only for children. Produce was available only in the town market and was limited to what surplus people had to offer from their small gardens -- mostly cabbages, cauliflower and root vegetables. I was told that gypsies used to bring chickens to sell, but approximately three years ago the government intervened and began to set prices so low and penalties for violations so high that chickens and many other private efforts were no longer cost effective.
Letters and packages from the West arrive opened, often with the contents missing. After my initial visit, an official came round and interrogated my relatives. In June 1984, while Americans rejoiced over Romania's decision to participate in the Olympics, I was being hassled while crossing the Romanian border. I had expected my car and belongings to be subjected to inspection, but I also expected to receive a warmer reception. I did not expect to be hassled and interrogated so extensively. The reception was actually colder than in 1983. Incidentally, when I mentioned the Olympics, people looked blank or responded with indifference toward the affair.
Looking past the veil of Romanian independence, one finds a country whose living conditions are deplorable when compared with the rest of Eastern Europe. My relatives describe their country as a slave state. The most appropriate comment I heard was "We don't need the Soviet Union. We have our own oppressive regime."