For over a year, we’ve heard dire warnings that Greece is teetering on the brink of a catastrophic financial collapse. The country has already been bailed out by the European Union once, but more money is required. Complicating this problem is the fact that a meltdown of the Greek economy would likely trigger serious problems or a domino-like collapse in countries like Spain and Italy.
As the European finance ministers debate the size, scope, and conditions of a second Greek bailout, the country has become increasingly volatile. Riots and demonstrations are happening on a regular basis. And last week, two of the protests degenerated into violent outbreaks that torched buildings and destroyed millions of dollars in property.
We happened to be in Rome this weekend with Glenn Beck (on an unrelated project), and it was decided that a quick visit to Athens might offer some eyewitness clarity on the situation. Beck stated that he hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the problems faced by the Greek people. The details of the trip will be shared on radio and television today. Plus, a mini-documentary on “The Real Face of Greece” and what Glenn discovered on this trip will also be seen this week on GBTV.
Our crew landed in Athens on Saturday night, just before midnight. The beautiful countryside and virtually new superhighway that led us to the city seemed to be in complete contradiction with what we were hearing about the country. Everything on this road appeared to be new and in great shape. Our driver informed us that the beautiful toll road was built for the 2004 Olympics, using German bond money. He also added that the Germans were still sharing in the toll revenues.
From our well-informed host we also learned:
Wages in Greece have fallen 25% in the last couple of years.
Unemployment sits at a staggering 20%. (Youth unemployment is considerably worse, hovering in the 45-50% zone.)
Inflation is also a concern… Fuel costs have rise 100% in two years and more increases are expected.
Small businesses, the lifeblood of any economy, are folding. Half of them could close this year, further crippling Greece.
The general sentiment of the Greek people is one of concern for their future, but there is also no willingness to accept the austerity cuts mandated by the eurozone finance ministers.
After a brief visit to the Acropolis, we stopped by the Greek Parliament building where the protests are regularly held.
The plaza was empty. However, we heard stories from the soldiers and citizens explaining that a one-hour protest had happened earlier in the day. (Apparently it was Halloween weekend in Greece and there were costumes to be donned and parties to attend.)
Our next stop was the Ministry of Arts and Sciences. This is a beautiful complex that has been repeatedly tagged with graffiti by the anarchists.
Translation: “If the revolution will not happen peacefully, then it will happen violently. Anarchy!”
On both sides of the main entrance to the beautiful building we found graffiti that was pro-Communism and pro-revolution. One popular sentiment just stated “Anarchy = Freedom.”
As we talked with more passersby about the situation, two self-proclaimed anarchists approached us. They were in a zombie-like state, both carrying beers but appearing to be under the influence of something else as well. They asked what we were doing. We said that we were trying to understand the riots and the graffiti. One kept repeating that “Anarchy equals Freedom.”
Next, we drove to see one of the burned out buildings from last week’s riots. Our driver told us that the universities offered a unique protection to the rioters and anarchists. If anyone is being pursued by the police and manages to get on university property, the police cannot arrest them without a warrant, and the warrant must be authorized by the university’s president. Virtually all of the university presidents have refused to approve these warrants, rendering the schools as sanctuaries.
Beck heard this and remarked, “The universities have replaced the churches.”
The previous weekend a local shopping mall and office complex was firebombed by the rioters.
We spoke with Con (as in Constantino), a man who owns a security company hired to protect the building. Con told us that the rioters tossed Molotov cocktails inside the stores on the first floor and then lay down in the streets surrounding the area. This road blocking action prevented fire departments from getting to the building for two hours and allowed the fire to burn out of control. The police have also warned Con that intelligence reports say another attack on the building could happen within the next day or two.
At least two other buildings have suffered a similar fate as the mall, both of them banks.
The downtown area surrounding the Parliament building is littered with graffiti, many well-fed and friendly stray dogs can be seen everywhere, and an alarming number of homeless people shuffle along the streets with a glazed look in their eyes. In one case we witnessed a man shooting up in the doorway of a store where he planned to spend the night.
It is no secret that Greece is in serious trouble. Decades of out of control government spending on social programs that have now become an untouchable right in the minds of many Greeks are at the heart of the problem. Something must be done or the economy will collapse under its own weight.
Most of the Greek people seem to understand that their current situation is unsustainable, but they also are sympathetic to the protesters. It is this position that seems to render the Greeks incapable of taking action that could save their country.
This attitude was clearly evident when Glenn Beck asked, “Who is at fault for the violence and destruction, the banks or the protesters?” One citizen paused for a second and remarked, “They’re both criminals.”