By Nick Larigakis
May 11, 2010
Years ago, I remember reading this humorous book that discussed different ways of “How to….” One chapter was titled “How to get in the News.” Short of finding a miracle wonder drug for a dreadful disease, the next surefire way was to “Commit a heinous Crime.” Sadly, we witness the truth in this statement everyday.
All of us in the Greek American community have been following closely the economic crisis that has acutely hit Greece during the past six months. It has placed Greece on the front pages of every prominent news journal around the world. Unfortunately, the negative coverage has been continuous and relentless.
Fair or not, Greece has been targeted as the cancer to the world’s economic woes. The May 9 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer even ran a story titled: “Greek crisis stirring global fears could slow U.S. recovery.” Maybe if the media tries hard enough, they can blame Greece for Global Warming too!
Although I’m certainly not an economist or understand the nuances of how the global economy functions—it would seem that most experts don’t either—no one should have been naïve enough to think that tiny Greece with its small economy would have been immune to the global economic crisis that we have been experiencing the past few years. Have we forgotten that just last year Wall Street was on the verge of collapse and how we had to bailout one U.S. financial institution after another? And we’re still not out of the woods yet as unemployment hovers at 10% and Wall Street fluctuates.
If in fact Greece, with its miniscule percentage of the overall world’s economy, can have such a negative domino effect, then both the euro zone and the global economy are far more fragile than any of us can imagine. The EU took some positive steps toward remedying the structural weaknesses in the euro zone. Greece served as the wake up call.
Another point to remember is that Greece has been a resolute ally of the United States and NATO. In this regard, Greece spends 3% of its GDP (6.6 billion Euros annually) on defense, making her second only to the U.S. by percentage in defense spending within NATO. Additionally, it is estimated that it costs Greece another 500 million Euros a year every time it has to scramble its planes to intercept Turkish military planes that violate Greek airspace. Therefore, Greek defense expenditures also contribute to Greece’s economic woes. The Greek government has announced plans to cut its defense spending by 25%.
Nonetheless, I’m not naïve enough to think that the way Greece has conducted itself over the past three decades has not also contributed mightily to its financial crisis. Its large public sector (by percentage the largest in the EU), corruption, lack of transparency, tax evasion, no serious foreign investment policies, bloated bureaucracy and a culture built on entitlements have contributed significantly to the problems Greece faces today.
The Greek Parliament passed an austerity package that was very unpopular to say the least. There was no choice. Greece had to shore up its economic house with a set of political and economic reforms in addition to satisfying the lending institutions that will bailout Greece and help her get started on the road to economic recovery.
Overwhelmingly, the Greek American community has shared in the frustration that has occurred in Greece and that has captured the world’s negative media attention. Even at AHI our leadership held a special meeting to discuss the role that Greek Americans could perform in the current crisis. It’s not easy. However, everyone can agree that it has to begin with Greece herself first and foremost.
To this effect, what infuriated me, and many of my colleagues, was the ugliness we saw in the streets of Athens last week, in demonstration against the austerity program, that ultimately led to the death of three bank employees—one of them a pregnant woman! That was simply deplorable!
While I understand that sentiments and feelings run deep, and in Greece maybe more so, Greece cannot continue to present this image to the rest of the world. Events leading up to the economic crisis certainly need to be discussed and debated and persons should be held accountable. However, when your house is burning you don’t throw gasoline on the flames to extinguish it.
In Greece, demonstrating is simply a form of political expression which is functionally the same as voting. However, this otherwise legitimate form of political expression must not be hijacked by extreme elements, or others, to the detriment of the good of the country and its image abroad. The guarantee of freedom of expression to all of the citizens cannot be used to deny the fundamental rights of other citizens as we clearly saw with the murders of innocent civilians and the destruction of property. This has to stop. As an old American saying goes, my right to swing my fist ends where your chin begins.
Greece’s largest and most important industry is tourism. On the eve of the tourist season these scenes do not help attract the much needed infusion of capital that tourism provides which is essential to the recovery of the Greek economy.
Greeks have succeeded in every country to which they have emigrated. For whatever reason, that same drive, determination, work ethic and “pisma” that every Greek of the Diaspora has displayed seems to be lacking in Greece. This is not because they are not intelligent, educated, lazy or well informed but rather because there seems to be something inherently flawed in the system under which they live. This crisis will force that system to change, and ultimately if ever there was truth to the Greek saying “Kathe Empodio Yia Kalo,” this might be the best positive long lasting effect that will come out of this crisis. It’s up to the Greeks to grasp the moment and the opportunity. While for many the austerity measures will be difficult, the Greek people will endure and excel because their indomitable Hellenic legacy and spirit will not allow them to fail.
As with past generations of Greeks abroad, the current generation of Diaspora Greeks is ready, willing and able to participate along with the Greek people to overcome the current challenges. However, it’s up to the Greeks first.
American Hellenic Institute