In 1989 we moved to Monrovia, Liberia where we lived for 10 months or so. We planned to stay longer, but a civil war broke out and we eventually had to leave.
Touring downtown Bucharest in the summer of 2014 reminded me in some ways of our arrival in Monrovia 25 years before.
We were being driven along the highway from the Monrovia airport into town. It was a very dark ride – the lights along the highway were not working. That meant being extra careful with the drive as the word highway in this case means just that the road was paved; it was teeming with people, despite the late hour, walking or trying to flag down a taxi.
As we passed the soccer stadium (a gift from Communist China) I noticed the highway lights were working. During the ensuing months I discovered that was always the case: the lights always worked from the stadium to downtown but never from the stadium out to the airport.
There was a reason for that, and this is how it was told to me:
The power utility was private. The government wasn’t paying its bills, so the power company turned off the lights on the road leading to the airport, but made sure they were on as far as the stadium.
You see, the then president of Liberia was a huge soccer fan. He frequently attended games at the stadium. (He also liked to play – I saw him suit up with the national team once.) I guess discretion suggested that his government’s failings not be rubbed in his nose. The lights by the road to the stadium stayed on, even if the bills weren’t paid. I can only assume he didn’t go to the airport at night, which meant the company could leave those lights off.
So how does this relate to what we saw in Bucharest this past summer?
The late Communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu had grandiose plans for his capital city. He built a massive palace that cost more than three billion euros and displaced more than 30,000 people as he razed a neighbourhood to build the massive edifice.
Such an impressive building quite naturally required an impressive setting. As Bucharest is frequently referred to as the Paris of Eastern Europe it made sense to Ceausescu to recreate the Champs-Elysees, Paris’ most famous boulevard, to bring people to his palace. As his ego required, his version was longer and wider than the one found in Paris. And it has some very beautiful fountains along the route.
Fountains though cost money to run, and this summer when we were there the fountains were only running sporadically. I was told it was a budget thing, which made me feel like I was back in Monrovia. Most of the day the fountains were completely dry. At afternoon rush hour some of them were running, but not all. I don’t know if the ones not running were broken and there was no money to repair them, or they just didn’t have the money to run the entire fountain system.
It did get me to thinking about the nature of dictatorships, and how dictators frequently overreach themselves. Because they have absolute power they don’t really have to worry about the long-term consequences. As the lights were on in Monrovia on the road to the soccer stadium, I`ll bet the fountains of Bucharest always worked while Ceausescu was in charge.
I am sure what I was told about the lights in Monrovia was true. I lived there long enough to discover how the city worked. The story we were told about the fountains had the ring of truth to it – but I suppose there is always the possibility that someone decided to have a bit of fun with the gullible tourists. The few that were functioning when we were there were fun to watch – I can only imagine how impressed I would have been if they had all been working.