In December 2001, the streets of major cities in Argentina erupted in mass protests and violence. Across the nation, desperate Argentineans, many of them from the nation's historically strong middle class, engaged in demonstrations, fought pitched battles with the police and looted grocery stores and other commercial establishments. Unable to quell the tide of violence and civil disobedience, on December 21, 2001, the President, Fernando de lua Rua resigned and fled his office via helicopter.
Argentineans had been pushed to their breaking point by a series of government austerity measures and crushing foreign debt. Unemployment, which had already stood at 14% in 2000, by late 2001 had reached 20%. The government had resorted to paying some salaries in I.O.U.s instead of cash. When desperate Argentineans began to pull their money out of banks and send it abroad, the government imposed a freeze on withdrawals denying depositors access to their funds.
Following de lua Rua's resignation, a series of increasingly frantic efforts were made by the Argentinean government to restore order and gain control of the economic crisis. They failed, and in the last week of 2001 Argentina formally defaulted on $132 billion in debt owed to its creditors, principally the IMF. The already desperate economic situation in the country became worse.
Many businesses closed or went bankrupt. Imported materials and goods became impossible to obtain. Many citizens, without access to currency of any kind, fell back on barter networks to survive. An estimated 40,000 persons in the capital city of Buenos Aires alone turned to scavenging and selling cardboard to make enough money to eat. The unemployment rate exceeded 25% in the summer of 2002 and by October 2002 almost 60% of the population was living in poverty. In August 2002, when a truck carrying 22 live cows overturned on a highway outside of Buenos Aires, a mob of starving Argentineans stripped every ounce of flesh from their bodies within hours.
I spent two weeks in late June and early July travelling across Greece in order to get a sense of the mood of the country and its prospects for the future. Everywhere I went I heard the same refrain. Greece is the next Argentina. Athens is the new Buenos Aires. The days of mass protests, street violence and chaos are coming again, but this time to a European capital.
In Athens I spoke with an old friend who told me that major supermarkets and retail establishments are already preparing for massive looting. They are training their personnel in how to respond to mob violence, and they are installing automatic shutter systems so as to be able to rabidly close off stores and prevent the complete loss of inventory.
On the island of Kefalonia I talked with an expat who has lived in Greece for most of the last thirty years. He told me that there was no chance that the country would be able to meet its obligations to the European Union (EU), and that the majority of the people on island had voted in the last election for Syriza, the leftist party whose express agenda is to walk away from the conditions of the bailout agreement with the EU. He saw no chance for Greece to avoid catastrophe. In his words, "Greece is dying, fast or slow, it is dying."
In Mycenae, the ancient city of Agamemnon, made famous by Homer and the Iliad, I visited a strangely quiet and virtually deserted site. Mycenae is a magnet for tourists from all over the world in normal times, but on the day I was there, only a handful of visitors and a couple of stray tour buses appeared. I ate lunch later in a roadside taverna with 90% of the tables vacant. Across the street, other restaurants sat silent with no customers at all.
In Epidauros, home to the greatest surviving ancient theater and a site of pilgrimage and worship of the god Asklipeo in Classical Greece, I drove past countless buildings and road signs defaced with the graffiti and symbols of the Golden Dawn Party. That far right organization, which blames Greece's ills on foreign influences and bases its appeal on a promise to return Greece to some mythical golden age, has been growing in strength steadily in recent months. I learned later that Golden Dawn has now begun to forcibly eject foreigners from their residences in Greece and to physically intimidate them into leaving the country.
In Athens I spoke with an old friend who is a Greek banker. He told me that all of the big foreign banks in country had either already pulled out or were preparing to do so. He said that it was considered essentially inevitable in banking circles that Greece would default on its loan obligations and be forced out of the EU. He estimated that this would happen by September of this year.
On the island of Ithaca I talked with a cab driver just returned from several decades working in Australia. He had come home to enjoy his retirement and be with his adult children. Instead he found himself forced to work and to watch as his sons, unable to find work in Greece, were now driven to emigrate themselves. He was living in the home of his eldest son, who was now, ironically enough, living and working in Sydney.
Everywhere I went I heard of people moving money abroad. Everywhere I went I heard of people leaving the country to make lives elsewhere. Everywhere I went I heard of people, unable to sustain themselves in major cities, moving back to the villages, moving in with relatives and sustaining themselves by planting gardens and raising livestock.
Scrawled across one wall next to a small snack stand were the words, in English "Athens Burns". Perhaps not quite yet, but, unfortunately, almost inevitably, all too soon. It has been almost eleven years since the people of Argentina exploded in rage at the economic conditions in that nation. | Photo: Charles Faddis | Greece, Athens, Protest, Argentina, Grafitti,
Greece's new coalition government is a fragile affair. The lead partner, the New Democracy Party, got less than 30% of the vote in the last elections. It was elected on a platform, which called for Greece to try to live up to its responsibilities under the terms of the bailout agreement reached with the EU. It was also elected, however with the general understanding on the part of the Greek electorate that it would manage to wring some kind of concessions out of the EU and gain some kind of relief from the strict austerity measures that have been prescribed.
There is virtually no chance that the EU will grant any such concessions. The Germans, who are the ones writing the checks the Greeks are cashing, are in no mood to be flexible. They have said publicly and repeatedly that the only thing that needs to be discussed is how the Greeks plan to implement the terms to which they have agreed. On multiple occasions, they have slammed the door on any suggestion of a modification of the strict austerity measures imposed on Athens.
When it becomes clear to the Greek electorate that the current government cannot obtain concessions, the government will fall. And it will be replaced by a government dominated by Syriza, the leftist party, which has promised to walk away from all previously agreed upon bailout terms. From that point on, the course of events will effectively be preordained. Greece will default on its obligations. EU money will dry up. The Government of Greece will be unable to pay pensions or salaries, and the nation will tumble into the abyss.
On my last full day in Athens, I went down to Exarcheia, the anarchist quarter, to have a beer and sniff the air. The plateia was hung with banners for the usual leftist causes, and the police, as usual, were giving the area a wide berth. Graffiti covered most of the walls of the buildings in the area, the bulk of it expressing nihilistic messages in Greek such as "Your nightmares, our dreams" and "Against everything, for nothing."
Scrawled across one wall next to a small snack stand were the words, in English "Athens Burns". Perhaps not quite yet, but, unfortunately, almost inevitably, all too soon. It has been almost eleven years since the people of Argentina exploded in rage at the economic conditions in that nation. Absent a miracle it will now be the turn of Greece, the next Argentina, to walk that path.