By Donella Meadows
–November 30, 1989–
Until a few weeks ago if you’d asked me whether I’d ever visited a country so unpleasant that I would never want to go back, I would have answered yes, three — Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
In those places the air was thick with fear day and night, inside and out, in schools, homes and workplaces. A bristling military presence was apparent everywhere. Stores had pitifully empty shelves. People were reduced to gray, expressionless ciphers. I could hardly stand to look them in the face, to confront their stifled humanity.
Romania was and still is the worst of the lot. In the countryside the rivers are choked with silt eroded from fields that once were fruitful. Obsolete industrial plants pour pollution into the sky. In downtown Bucharest streams of pedestrians (ordinary Romanians don’t have cars) carefully make long detours around the huge Party Headquarters building topped with its red star. Soldiers keep citizens at a distance of at least two blocks in every direction from their government.
After a few hours in those countries I was always tied into tight knots of anger. Governments that will not tolerate the approach of citizens, that demean, exploit, imprison, and lie, that foul water and air, that waste the land are, as Ronald Reagan said, evil empires.
In these three cases the evil came largely from within, from homegrown German, Czech, and Romanian tyrants. They leaned on the USSR for support, of course, but they surpassed the Soviets in oppressing their people. It isn’t surprising that even with Gorbachev’s glasnost, even with Poland and Hungary breaking out into democracy, East Germany, Czechslovakia, and Romania would be the last to go.
Romania hasn’t gone yet and well may not. People have danced on the Berlin Wall and popped champagne corks in Prague, but last week, on the day Czechoslovakia’s government fell, cheering minions of the Romanian Communist Party “re-elected” their dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu to another five years in power. We have not heard a peep of dissidence in the streets of Bucharest. Those gunners are still prepared to fire on their own people.
No one predicted the events of this giddy Freedom Year, but after the fact there are plenty of theorists ready to explain what has happened and why. Their explanations are nothing but claims of Rightness for their own beliefs. This is a victory for capitalism. It’s the success of the Reagan Doctrine. It’s One Great Leader (Gorbachev) changing history. It’s socialism finally shedding its Stalinist distortions and moving forward toward its ultimate destiny. It’s that unstoppable People Power. It’s the power of an idea whose time has come.
Of all these theories, the one I least believe is that the democratic miracles in Eastern Europe are a result of U.S. foreign policy. I keep thinking of Romania.
Romania has been for decades the only East European country that the United States has courted, the one to which we granted most-favored-nation status, the one to which we sent aid. Why? Because its government did not allow Russian troops within its borders and did not follow the Moscow party line. It was the most brutal government in Europe and we helped it acquire the hardware and legitimacy with which it enforced its brutality. We did so because we were more anti-Soviet than we were pro-freedom. That same policy led us to support Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and the founders of apartheid in South Africa, and Chinese leaders who had many elegant ways of silencing their people long before they gunned down the students in Tiananmen Square. That policy leads us still to support unconscionable governments in Haiti, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, and — until it was caught drug-running — Panama.
Our government did nothing until the last few minutes to promote the blossoming of freedom in the Philippines. It did not cause the present miracles in East Europe. If we were involved at all, it was only through our example of a people living in relative freedom.
We could do much more to push the tide of history toward a worldwide failure of public tolerance for all forms of government-imposed evil. I personally could do more as an American citizen. I could express consistently, loudly, and publicly my horror and shame when my government supports oppressors of any political stripe, right or left, Romanian or Salvadoran. I could say I am disgusted by the idea of promoting one kind of dictatorship in order to oppose another. I could work to invoke the People Power of this country to insist that our government stand not against communism but for the empowerment of the people of all nations.
Empowerment does not come from weapons or from rigged elections with candidates the people did not choose and do not want. It comes from freedom of speech and press, freedom to organize and demonstrate, freedom to demand that your government tell the truth and not use the fruits of your own labor to commit or support evil.
That is the idea whose time I would like to help come, until it is unstoppable, until it finally reaches Romania. And the United States.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989