I write to you the eve of the election for the referendum in Greece. Sitting in the hotel lobby and the concierge just grew tired of the news and switched the channel to football. The Greek people are being asked to vote tomorrow either Oxi or Nai. Yes or no.
Yes means to agree to the reforms and restrictions imposed by the troika—the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission—in exchange for yet another bailout so that Greece can pay back its debt. No means to refuse the reforms and maintain a bargaining chip in the current financial negotiations. Yesterday I found myself in Syndgma Square (Constitution Square) in Athens during the large protest in favor of No. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was set to speak, but to get the large crowd in the mood, several speakers stood up and riled up the emotions with their rhetoric. Each speaker had a partner who repeated their lines in another language—German, French, Spanish, English—and then it was translated into Greek. "This is not a problem only of the Greek people!" One person declared. "It is a problem of all the European people!" A mother next to me thrust her fist passionately in the air yelling "OXI OXI OXI." A speaker chanted, "Oxi means democracy. Oxi means dignity. Oxi means sovereignty. Oxi means future. Oxi means hope."
The measure being voted on is for the acceptance of austerity measures in response to Greece's serious financial predicament. But how did Greece reach a point where it seems to be hanging on a cliff's edge and dependent on the mercy of Chancellor Angela Merkel?
Let's break it down: Greece has racked up serious debt since entering the European Union (and some would say on mainly false pretenses as they proved their financial status on fallacious documents). This has been exacerbated by several factors, one of which being the incredibly high employment rate in the public sector. Over 30% of Greeks are employed by their government. Compare that to the United States where only 16% work in the public sector (according to 2013 numbers found here). The government has to pay all these people, yet the income isn't there.
Why? Because of the incredibly high rate of tax evasion that has occurred over the years. The government had no system in place to truly collect taxes which has led many who are privately employed to avoid paying taxes all together. This reached a tipping point in 2008 during the global economic crisis and Greece's internal debt was laid bare.
Since then, different privatized companies have bought Greece's debt, mainly French or German or other European companies. The European Commission imposed severe austerity measures and government budget cuts in exchange. Greece had the last 5 years to pay them back. But then Greece wasn't able to pay back its debts and we've arrived to the current crisis.
Meanwhile, you have the politics of the European Union creating stark dichotomous ultimatums: Greece is either in the EU or out. The EU will either bail out Greece again or cut it off and leave it to fend for itself. This would begin by defaulting on their loans, leaving the Eurozone, and reintroducing the drachma. A friend of mine was explaining these complexities to me and concluded that if Greece ends up defaulting on its loans, who knows what will happen. Not just to Greece. Not just to the European Union. But even to an economy of another country on the other side of the world. Everything is so interconnected.
I'm here now attending a 4 day seminar on Eastern Mediterranean relations with participants from Greece, Jordan, Israel and more. We took a ferry four hours from Athens and were immediately shuffled into a restaurant with the doors open to the Aegan sea. The place was packed—it had been booked by a local family to celebrate the christening of their child. Musicians strummed at their instruments, people were clapping and dancing, and the director of the program explained to me how island music is happier than mainland music. "We call mainland music the blues." And yet its upbeat tempo and light notes seemed to still ring with an air of positivity. The participant sitting next to me kept leaning over to make sure I noticed that this was a really good song. "It's a classic!" He explains how the accompanying dance is of someone swirling around as if they're drunk, falling closer and closer to the ground as if gravity was winning. Meanwhile I leaned across the table to chat with a professor from Egypt who will be lecturing during the conference and shared my salad with a participant from China. The Greeks at the table next to me were debating whether Greece will end up more like Venezuela or Argentina.
I began polling my new Greek colleagues, would you be voting yes or no tomorrow? Vibrant conversations struck up. Most people on this program would vote yes, they are students in European Studies programs. They agree to the measures because it's what is required of them in the current system. But it's not without concessions. One participant declared loudly that he would vote no, and that Europe is full of neoliberal fascists who are overstepping Greek's sovereignty. The debate raged on. One of the directors explained to me, "As Greeks, our minds say yes, but our hearts say no." And with that, she checked her watch and said that she must get to the bank to withdraw her daily allotment of 60€. Her mother is bed ridden you see, she needs her money.
I took a picture of a line of people standing outside of an ATM while in Athens. The second my shutter snapped closed, a woman came up to me and began yelling at me. "Do you think this is funny? To watch old people in line standing to try to get their money?" Another woman came over and it felt as though she was cursing me in Greek. I tried to explain calmly that, no, I did not find their situation funny, rather it is historical. My heart was pounding in my chest. She threw her hands in the air and walked away.
If I've gathered anything in the last four days, it is that the Greek are a proud people. From their immortal marble monuments to their constantly full glasses of wine, there is a certain air of confidence that they seem to carry.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but for now I'm content to listen to the waves lapping against the shore. The mainland blues sure seem far away from here on the island.
For context on the current situation, check out the This American Life on the original crisis in 2012 here: http://m.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/455/continental-breakup
And be sure to follow John Cassidy's reporting in The New Yorker for updates.
***For updated analysis after the referendum with a 60-40 win to Oxi and the results of the bargaining between the Greek government and the European Union, see this thoughtful article written by Spyros Katsoulas.***