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Weissman writes: "He could hardly have been more removed from the street protests and ideological struggles in Athens, but he had strong views on how the conflict between Greece and its foreign creditors was uprooting the lives of ordinary Greeks."

Poverty on the streets of downtown Athens. The authorities registered 20 percent more homeless in 2011. (photo: DPA)
Poverty on the streets of downtown Athens. The authorities registered 20 percent more homeless in 2011. (photo: DPA)

What Europe and the IMF Are Doing to Greece: A First-Hand Look

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

28 May 15


t the moment, we see only the dark face of Europe,” said Leonidas Fotinos. “They want to buy Greece cheap.”

A large, young-looking man in his early 50s, Leonidas studied economics at university and was now running a small tour business on the historic Aegean island of Milos. He could hardly have been more removed from the street protests and ideological struggles in Athens, but he had strong views on how the conflict between Greece and its foreign creditors was uprooting the lives of ordinary Greeks.

The only wealth most Greeks had was in their own family property, he explained in his poetic English. He himself had a property on the outskirts of Athens. Before the global economic crisis, it had been valued at €800,000, against which he could borrow at a bank. Now it was worth maybe €250,000 – if he could find someone to buy it or a bank willing and able to lend.

“It’s not just private property,” he said. The EU and IMF were also insisting that Greece sell its ports and other national assets. “That’s not investment,” he said. “That’s just privatization.”

All this from a small player in the one big Greek industry that does not stand directly in the line of fire, at least not yet. “Tourism is surviving,” he smiled. “Prices have held steady for the last three years, which makes Greece seem an attractive destination for foreigners.”

This was one of the questions that had brought my wife Anna and I on a journalistic visit to Greece. In recent years, tourism has employed 20% of the Greek people and provided an even higher percentage of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Could the industry continue to provide hope to the struggling Greeks? And how might increasing dependence on tourism impact their country? Having lived on Florida’s West Coast, worked together on the now defunct Boaters Monthly and Fishermen’s Environmental Fund, and made visits to Cuba in 1997-1998, we knew all too well how too many tourists could become a destructive Trojan Horse.

Dragging ourselves to the Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris at 3:15 in the morning for a budget flight to Greece, we flew directly to the volcanic island of Santorini, where we boarded the Aegean Lady 2 – a 115-foot replica of a traditional wooden fishing trawler, or caïque – to visit several of the small islands in the Cyclades. We began our voyage on May 10, in the company of a wonderfully hospitable Greek crew, four retired French couples we were meeting for the first time, and Alexandros, a conscientious French-speaking organizer from Heliades, the company that sold us the package.

Aegean Lady 2. (photo: Steve Weissman)
Aegean Lady 2. (photo: Steve Weissman)

What a delightful way to get back to some first-hand reporting! Or so I thought until the Force 7 Meltemi winds from the north clashed with a southerly blow from Africa, turning the deep blue sea into raging white waves crashing against each other. We were not in a storm, but the chaotic wind and waves rocked the sturdy boat in all directions, sending the lounge furniture flying and hurling me onto the floor, where Anna feared I had cracked open my head. In many years of sailing in the shallow, often choppy Gulf of Mexico, I had never experienced anything quite so stomach-churning.

Finding safe harbor in Milos, our thoroughly shaken group hired Leonidas as our guide and he dazzled us with sun-bleached white lava fields by the sea, an ancient amphitheater now being restored for live performances of classic Greek drama, the catacombs where the island’s first-to-fifth century Christians buried their dead, and the nearby site from which in the early 1820s French officials begged, bought, or stole the ancient Greek sculpture of the disarmed Aphrodite of Milos, which now brings tourists to the Louvre in Paris as the Latinized Venus de Milo.

Along with Greece’s beaches and blazing sun, crystal clear water, fresh fish, and grandmotherly cooking, these are the stock in trade of a thriving tourist industry that could become even stronger whether or not Europe forces the country out of the Euro. But for Anna and me, the high point came when Leonidas took us to the island’s capital, Plaka, an ancient town with white-washed buildings perched near the top of a volcanic hill. The view of the Gulf of Milos was panoramic, and we felt unbelievably tranquil, in part because the winding alleys surrounding us were much too narrow to allow any cars.

“Sometimes I come here at midnight after work,” Leonidas told me in a quiet aside. “I find it spiritual.” I did not think he meant that in a religious sense, but did not know him well enough to ask. Later he got the Greek Orthodox priest to give him the keys to the main church and he took us inside. It was small and crammed full of religious paintings, icons, and art objects, endless gold leaf, and other all-too-human excesses.

Except for the church, which Anna and I found way over-the-top, Plaka deeply moved us as it did Leonidas. We even liked a strange counterpoint right in the center – the rude ruin of an old house with its whitewash and plaster gone and its wretched stone walls exposed. “Is it for sale?” I asked. “Yes,” said Leonidas sadly, not yet knowing of our journalistic quest. “Given the economic crisis, you can find a lot of bargains.”

That evening, in his office near the port, Leonidas opened up in a way I had not expected. He had formerly voted for ecological parties and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) of the former prime minister Georgios Papandreou, whom he came to detest for selling out to the Europeans. “He sold us like oranges,” said Leonidas. The tour guide and small businessman now backed Alexis Tsipris and his Syriza, a disputatious coalition within a coalition government that includes the right-wing and openly anti-Semitic Independent Greeks. Leonidas saw Syriza less as a leftist party and more as a nationalist reflection of “the real feeling of the Greeks.”

Why do we see no political posters or other signs of mass mobilization, I asked. “There’s no need,” he said. Syriza speaks “the common language of quiet resistance.”

Leonidas especially liked Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, whom he saw as one of the few people able to come up with an economic and political alternative, both for Greece and for the rest of the continent. “Europe just does not want to hear him.” Too much Marx or too much Keynes, I wondered aloud. Leonidas was not sure, but we continue to pursue the question by email.

As a young man during World War II, his father had fought against the German and Italian occupiers, said Leonidas. Now, he felt, he and today’s Greeks would likely need to do the same.

Gulf of Milos. (photo: Steve Weissman)
A rock formation in the Aegean Sea. (photo: Steve Weissman)

Cruising to other islands, I put some of the same questions to Captain Stavros, an old charmer in his late 70s who piloted big ships in Asia and around the world and ran a small shipping company closer to home. He built the Aegean Lady 2, and owns it and a sister ship that does the same kind of island hopping. He now tries – and occasionally fails – to leave the hands-on skippering to a 27-year-old wunderkind named Captain Ioannis, who handled the boat with a precision I had rarely seen. Stavros and his wife Maria live on board. She cooked our mid-day feasts even in the worst of seas, while he played host to what was very much a mom-and-pop cruise.

Describing himself as a political centrist, Stavros admitted that he had generally leaned toward Papandreou and his center-left Socialists. He also gave the previous center-right government of Konstantinos Karamanlis credit for creating some economic growth, and he felt that Syriza had made matters worse by promising people far more than they could ever deliver. But even Stavros felt angered by the Europeans, and especially the Germans, for pushing Greece into a corner. He also mentioned that his fuel costs had doubled in recent years and that Maria was having trouble getting her pension.

In a way, Stavros represented what was best and worst about his country. He treated his small crew as family, and claimed to pay them far beyond minimum wage. “No one could live on that,” he said. In return, his crew gave their all, doing whatever needed to be done, including schmoozing with us, mostly in English, picking us up off the floor, and rushing from wherever they were to steady us whenever we looked likely to stumble on the wobbly gangplank or in the chaotic seas. Stavros had even gone out of his way to give a summer job to the daughter of an old family friend, a classically beautiful young woman named Artemis who was going to university in Vienna and was fluent, funny, and always helpful in both English and German.

Such family feelings seemed well-suited to Stavros’s two-ship cruising business. But they held back the growth, fairness, and flexibility of large enterprises, and became even more destructive in public life. According to no less than Varoufakis, family ties and “clientelism” had given Greece too much corruption and rotten government and needed to be removed if the country was ever to become a modern, democratic nation.

Sadly, even Syriza seems to have succumbed to awarding public office to their closest and most trusted associates. “We have to see our own defects,” said Leonidas. “But we can’t break clientelism in a month or two.”

Santorini sculpture art. (photo: Steve Weissman)
Street art from an Aegean island in the Cyclades. (photo: Steve Weissman)

On our last two days, we tied up at the old port of Santorini, which sits in what had been the crater of the volcano that destroyed much of the island over three-and-a-half thousand years ago. What the eruption left has now become a tourist hot spot. Two large cruise ships were anchored in the harbor. A sleek oligarch-style motor yacht was docked next to us, and visitors from all over the world – including many prosperous looking Chinese, both young and old – clogged the winding lanes, shops, restaurants, and hotels along the crater’s edge, or caldera. I had been here for a conference before the global economic crash, and the island now seemed far busier than I remembered – and far more of a schlocky tourist trap. Still, the punters were coming in droves and the money was pouring in.

Will this continue if the Europeans force Greece to the wall? It’s far from certain, as we saw waiting for our plane back to Paris. The shabby little airport was trying to service flights to cities all over Europe and beyond, and the polyglot crowd was growing increasingly agitated as departure times came and went. The staff seemed unable to move so many of us through check-in and security and onto our flights in any timely way. Slowly, the reason became clear. With all the public sector cuts that the austerity-minded EU and IMF had forced on Greece, only three cops, one baggage scanner, and one metal detector gate were not nearly enough to handle all the tourists heading home from our wonderful sun-filled stay. It simply makes no sense.

Photographs by Steve and Anna Weissman. Hat tip to my old partner in crime Ed Harriman for steering us toward the story.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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