'Dracula Is Dead,' But How Is Romania?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Twenty years ago this month, another panel of the iron curtain fell in Romania with the demise of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day in 1989, ending more than 40 years of communist rule.
A new book looks back at Romania's transformation over the past two decades. "Dracula is Dead" is co-authored by former ambassador to Romania, Jim Rosapepe, and journalist Sheilah Kast. Longtime listeners of WEEKEND EDITION may remember her as an occasional guest host. They're in our Washington studios. Welcome to the program, Jim, and welcome back, Sheilah.
Ms. SHEILAH KAST (Co-Author, "Dracula is Dead"): Thanks. It feels good to be back, Liane.
Mr. JIM ROSAPEPE (Former Ambassador, Co-Author, "Dracula is Dead"): Thanks.
HANSEN: Let me start with you, Jim. The subtitle of the book is "How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy." I'm not quite sure if that's good news or bad news but it's a success story is what you're saying.
Mr. ROSAPEPE: It's a terrific success story. It's really the miracle of the Balkans, because 20 years ago they were in a deeper hole than most of the Eastern European countries. Their economy was in worse shape, their political system was more totalitarism. And in 20 years, they've become a thriving democracy, a rapidly modernizing economy. They're members of the European Union, they're allies of the United States and NATO.
They aren't where they want to be, but they've made enormous progress in 20 years. They worked very hard to allow children from all economic backgrounds to go to college based on merit. As I'm sure your listeners know, this year the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature was Herta Muller, who's from Romania. So, it's a very highly educated country.
HANSEN: I think Americans have some fuzziness about Romania. You actually write that many of us think of Romania as Dracula, orphanages and dictators. Talking about Transylvania, of course, that's the part of the country we associate with Dracula and vampires. And, I mean, even though there seems to be no real nuggets of truth that there was a vampire name Dracula, the country itself has kind of said embrace that idea and kind of has, you know, vampire tourism.
Ms. KAST: Well, they've embraced the tourism, certainly. They're not so crazy about America's fixation about Dracula. We got some questions when we were there a couple of weeks ago about why did you put Dracula in the title of your book? And we explained we were starting from where we think a lot of Americans start. But certainly they've embraced the tourism.
They are very hospitable. It's an incredibly hospitable place. And it's a great place for tourism. And if Dracula is what tourists want to know about, there certainly are places that they can connect to the 15th century prince, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, on which Bram Stoker based his hero.
HANSEN: I'm speaking with Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast, authors of the book, "Dracula is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy."
Back in 1989, we were hearing about the deplorable conditions in the orphanages there and many of the orphans were HIV positive. What happened to them?
Mr. ROSAPEPE: They got better. The problems aren't solved, but there clearly were maybe 150,000 children in these orphanages. Not all of them, or even most of them, were orphans in the sense that we think of them. They had parents but they didn't have what we think of as a welfare system where low-income families could keep their kids at home. Instead, when a low-income family had an additional child, they couldn't support, they'd take them to the state institution called the orphanage.
During the Ceausescu period, he wanted to boost the population tremendously so he restricted birth control, restricted abortion. As a result, a lot of poor families had a lot more kids, therefore more kids ended up in the orphanages. It was a poor country. They were treated poorly.
In the last 20 years, there's been enormous effort by concerned Americans, by concerned Romanians, western Europeans to fix that. They've improved the homes for children. They've moved, if they can, from orphanages to foster homes. They promoted Romania adoption of children, as well as many foreign adoptions. There are many Americans who've adopted Romanian children. So, the problem isn't solved, but it's much improved from 20 years ago.
Ms. KAST: And specifically, the kids with AIDS - I mean, Romania had more than half of all the pediatric AIDS cases in Europe for years. And thanks to great doctors and antiretroviral drugs, many of these kids have reached adulthood. And life is tough for them - probably not easy for anybody with HIV/AIDS, but a lot of them are making it.
HANSEN: The world is in the midst of an economic recession now, and you were just in Romania a few weeks ago. So, how are things in Romania?
Mr. ROSAPEPE: They're in the middle of the great recession, just like the United States is. But the important thing in Romania is, as they say, it's a crisis of capitalism now, not a crisis of communism. They're still integrated with the world economy, so when Germany, Italy, France took a nosedive that helped bring Romania down with it.
HANSEN: Jim, you now head an investment firm and you're on the boards of several funds investing in Eastern Europe. Are you bullish on Romania's future?
Mr. ROSAPEPE: Very much so, just as I'm bullish on America's future. We're going through a tough time. But if you have hardworking people, you have motivated people, you have well-educated people, and I would say pound-for-pound Romanians may be more well-educated on average than Americans are.
And then you add the fact that costs in Romania are low, because they were a poor country coming out of communism. They have a tremendous competitive advantage going forward over the next 20 years.
HANSEN: Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast are authors of "Dracula is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy." They joined us in our Washington studios. Thank you very much, both of you.
Ms. KAST: Thanks, Liane.
Mr. ROSAPEPE: Thanks a lot.
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