Mention Romania to most Americans and they're likely to conjure up incongruous images of a megalomaniacal communist dictator and helpless, neglected orphans.
After the videotaped execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu and the fall of communism in December 1989, some of the first and most unforgettable footage of life in this Eastern European country were of the horrifying conditions in its 600 state-run orphanages.
In 1990, when foreign reporters first descended on Riul Vadalui, a home for handicapped children in Sibiu County in central Romania, they brought back reports of children sleeping in their excrement and fighting a losing battle with rats for food.
The response to such reports and others was nothing short of spectacular. In 1990 and 1991, 1,250 Western humanitarian and religious groups came to these children's aid, sending money, supplies, and volunteers. By July 1991, when Romanian authorities began to regulate and limit the country's adoptions, 10,000 foreign couples had adopted Romanian children.
Because of this aid, by 1992 the conditions at most Romanian orphanages had greatly improved. In the years before the revolution, the annual death rate at Riul Vadalui was 44 percent. For the past six years, that rate has dropped below 1 percent. Now, the children are properly fed, clothed, and all have their own beds. In the last six years, recreational, religious, and educational services have been added to improve the children's quality of life.
How did it happen?
But now that the basic needs of the orphans are being met, and most foreign aid workers have moved on to their next mission, the country must confront the deeper cultural problem that allowed children to subsist in these conditions in the first place.
While poverty and a corrupt communist system were partly responsible for the widespread neglect of orphans, they don't explain why the thousands of Romanians who worked with these children were not moved to improve such inhumane conditions.
Many Romanians are frustrated with their country's lack of progress. Eight years after the fall of communism, Romanians haven't yet fully accepted the demands of democracy and free-market capitalism. While the country lacks clear-cut prescriptions for its troubles, there is no shortage of diagnoses.
Maria Topirceanu, Riul Vadalui's new director, says very little would have changed in the country's orphanages without foreign help. One of the most harmful cultural legacies of communism is the persistent belief that the government will tend to all social problems. Community-based social-service organizations are a brand new concept in Romania that enjoys little support from the government.
Bogdan Flora, a professor of psychology at the University of Sibiu, says Romania needs to develop a culture of self-reliance. "People may have changed their political opinions with the end of communism," he says. "But it's very hard to change the way they think. They don't know where to begin solving their own social problems."
While the conditions of the orphanages may be under control, Romania still has a problem with unwanted children living in city streets and sewers. More than 1,000 children are believed to live in Bucharest's Gara de Nord train station. Anca Dionicie, a young activist who has worked with street children in Bucharest for the past four years, says the greatest barrier to helping these children is the "mentality" of the Romanian people.
"No one is ready to say OK, let's do something for Romania," she complains. But Ms. Dionicie also says the problem of Romanians' passivity in the face of social ills can't be blamed entirely on communism. "The people have lost faith."
Spiritual and moral crisis
Sister Mary Rose Christy, an American Catholic nun who has been working with children and families in Romania since 1991, believes Romania is suffering from a spiritual and moral crisis. "I think people have been beaten down in this country for so long that they suffer from a lack of worth. And without self-worth, it's difficult to develop a strong sense of morality."
Nicoleta Stana, a psychologist in the Transylvanian city of Cluj, echoes these sentiments in more secular terms. "I don't think we trust ourselves," she says. "We're used to having bosses and taking orders."
Other Romanian intellectuals point to the long list of Romania's invaders to explain the Romanian psyche. "When you're surrounded by empires, you have to be very opportunistic to survive," says Stelian Tenase, a prominent writer and political scientist. "It's survival behavior. It creates a kind of fragile conscience."
Polls show that most Romanians believe the country's greatest prospect for advancement lies in joining the European Union and NATO. But thus far, their nation has been deemed socially and economically ill-prepared to join either organization. That means Romania will have to tackle its most pressing social and economic ills if it hopes to ever acquire membership.
And while it's clear the government must play a lead role in social and economic reform, the Romanian people themselves will have to develop a stronger civic culture for the transformation to be complete.
"Romanians are a passive people who aren't active in public space," Mr. Tenase, the writer, says.
If Romania hopes to reverse its lagging fortunes, its people will first have to overcome a long history of defeat. And that's going to take great faith.
* Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy.