Montreal is home to 60,000 Greek Quebecers, many of whom fled the colonels and their US-backed junta from 1967 to 1974. On Parc Avenue, near where I live, there is a Greek workers' club, along with many other social clubs, restaurants and small businesses founded by industrious Greek immigrants. Every year there is a big blue and white parade in celebration of the Greek War of Independence, or the Greek Revolution, on Mar. 24. I have a crush on Greece and have dreamed of visiting for years.
During the Printemps Érable (the Québec student spring), in 2012, the same year that the bailout was imposed on Greece, the students of Québec took to the streets to fight tuition fee increases. They received a letter from 150 Greek academics in June 2012: "...we are watching in hope, because the voice of the student movement of Quebec offers valuable lessons to the world concerning resistance to education commodification and the defense of public and democratic education."
There is a connection between Greece and Québec.
I am reading the hugely successful Percy Jackson books to my daughter, featuring demigod hero and teenager Perseus Jackson, the son of Poseidon, an absent and unpredictable dad. The Gods are powerful, callous and cruel, not unlike the banks and politicians that run Europe. They manipulate and wreak havoc in the lives of the people. Sometimes they demand human sacrifice.
The bailout of 2012 was orchestrated by the cruel Gods of the Troika as it is called — the lofty European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
How did Greece become so indebted? Part of the answer is that Europe poured money and big promises into Greece after the junta fell. Helping the people modernize and rebuild the economy was critical to a new and democratic Europe. When Greece hit the debt ceiling, the banks made lots of money restructuring the debt. Then Wall Street brought the world economy to its knees, with a devastating effect on the weaker economies of Europe. Their debt loads were high, but the 2008 Wall Street crash was the straw that broke the camel’s back and brought them crashing down.
But it is very clear that austerity is not the answer. Since austerity was imposed the employment rate has dropped by almost 40 per cent, the suicide rate has risen by over 40 per cent, the numbers of people depressed and on medication is up by almost 300 per cent, the infant mortality rate has gone up by 42 per cent. Sacrifice has been rendered to the Gods, and still it is not enough.
Two of many suicides in Greece became news because the men who chose to end their lives did so within weeks of each other in the busy public square that has been the stage of so many anti-austerity protests in downtown Athens. Thousands of despairing people have ended their lives in the five years since austerity was imposed.
The Greek parliament had to suspend home repossessions to keep 200,000 families off the streets. Half of the people lack electricity and basic food security and have to scavenge to eat.
The electoral win of the left coalition known as Syriza is a logical outgrowth of years of that suffering. And if I were a Greek national with the privilege of voting, I would have run to the polls with my hair on fire and voted for Syriza.
It is beyond ironic that it is primarily mighty Germany that is exacting payment from Greece. The Greek death toll under the Nazis is estimated to have been between 300,000 and 800,000. The Nazi occupation of Greece was harsh even by Nazi standards, with mass executions of Greeks, in some cases entire villages. The Nazis smashed hundreds of towns and villages. In many places the wreckage is still very visible. The Nazis also pillaged the Greek treasury.
The Greek Finance Ministry did a wide-ranging analysis of the cost of damages to Greece caused by Nazi Germany. They estimated that the total owed by Germany to Greece for destruction and forced loans to Germany by the Bank of Greece between 1942 and 1944 to fund the German occupation. The total comes to roughly 162 billion euros. That money could go a long way toward solving Greece’s debt problems, but no one has been willing to pick a fight with Berlin over reparations, at least not yet.
Germany did not pay reparations to Greece. Germany was bailed out by Europe at the London Conference of 1953. But today’s Germany sees the anti-austerity winds blowing across Europe and will try to stop the movement. The problem for the oligarchs is that if Greece defaults, the entire financial system is in trouble. It could set off a chain reaction of defaults across Europe.
At the recent meeting of the Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland there was a lot of talk about inequality. There was even talk to the effect that maybe capitalism had gone too far and the concentration of wealth at the top was too extreme. But the years of abysmal failure of austerity in all contexts doesn’t seem to have changed the attitude of the Troika or of Germany. As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Recently we were lucky enough to spend some time in the Greek islands. Those we met worked very hard to make us feel welcome, and to entice us into spending as many of our euros as possible. We were happy to oblige. The bars and restaurants and hotels were open long hours, and everyone we met was working two and three jobs. Several times people thanked us for holidaying in Greece.
The lesson of the First and Second World Wars is that if you impose punishing sanctions on a country you create the breeding grounds for fascism. In Greece this is evident in the form of a particularly nasty political formation with the name Golden Dawn. Several of their candidates were in jail during the election for their involvement in the murder of an anti-Nazi rapper. Golden Dawn got 8 per cent of the vote.
Another precursor for extremism is ethnic stereotyping, and there has been quite a lot of simplistic and insulting description of Greeks — lazy, tax evaders, double dippers, black marketeers, authors of their own misfortunes. How can an entire economy be brought down because some people work under the table and don’t pay their taxes? Characterizing the entire country as scammers is ridiculous. The bailout money was always and only for the banks, never for the people.
If I could be permitted to make a suggestion to the party that I would have voted for: perhaps what is needed is a debtors' cartel. Alexis Tsipras and his new cabinet could form a bloc with Italy, Cyprus, Turkey, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. Maybe they could extract themselves from the Euro zone but still remain in the EU like Sweden, the United Kingdom and Denmark.
Together they could certainly exert a lot of pressure on the banks and Troika, and start to bring about systemic change.
Another possibility is to go after the mighty Greek Orthodox Church, with its gold and silver clad churches and chapels, which owns vast untaxed properties. The head of Syriza declined a religious swearing-in for the first time in modern Greek history. Perhaps this augurs for a new relationship between the opulent Orthodox Church and its suffering faithful.
It also seems like an auspicious time to raise taxes on Greek banks and the rich, who should be bearing their fair share of the austerity that has crippled the country.
It does seem a David and Goliath scenario — tiny Greece demanding a renegotiation of the brutal terms of its $284 billion bailout from mostly German creditors. But there is no choice. Greek society is cracking under the weight of the oppressive conditions imposed on it by the Troika.
There is much more at stake in Greece than in Quebec, where the Liberal government is now talking about austerity, something it never campaigned on. Here there are layoffs and course cancellations in the colleges and universities, doctors and nurses are at war with the Health Minister, elderly patients lie on gurneys for days awaiting care. In November, tens of thousands of Quebeckers took to the cold winter streets to protest against austerity. Police officers, very repressive toward the students two years before, stood quietly by, perhaps because their pensions are now at risk. They have become tacit allies of those they brutalized two years before.
Already Syriza is defying the conditions imposed upon Greece by hiring back the 595 women cleaners, mostly over 50 years of age, who worked in the Ministry of Finance and who were fired as part of austerity. The symbolism is important. As a former cleaner, and someone who knows how poor the pay is and how tiring the work, I am with them in their struggle.
Winning the election is just the beginning.