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With unemployment at almost 30% for the general population, 50% for those under 30, with suicides surpassing depression-era levels, with a rising neo-Nazi movement that preys on the fears of the less-educated, and with a powerless coalition government ceding national sovereignty to repay a debt that was made by the very same government partners (with the exception of the minority coalition partner, DIMAR/"Democratic Left") that are now again in power, Greece appears to be a sinking ship -- even if it's sinking into the beautiful Aegean sea.
But not so fast. Help is on the way in the form of a left progressive coalition: SYRIZA, EKM (Coalition of the Radical Left, United Social Front). Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, was here in Washington and New York with a delegation of Greek MPs this week. Enthusiastic audiences applauded the witty, good-humored, but fiercely intelligent and dead serious left leader. Even skeptical interlocutors at the Brookings Institute conceded congeniality if nothing else. "Smart! Smart! Smart!" a member of the American audience said of Tsipras.
SYRIZA appears to be heading for a decisive victory in likely new elections. For the current government is tied to the rising misery of the Greek middle and working classes as well as the misery of farmers and retirees. Continuously imposing new taxes on those who have nothing any more to give, coupled with cutting social security and health care while presiding over the shuttering of industries and small businesses, the government creates even greater unemployment only to satisfy the Troika's (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank) demands for austerity.
Modern European politics have become a kind of collusion between incompetent European Union technocrats, unaccountable bureaucracies and opportunistic national politicians that toe its line. But here is a group working on the ground (Solidarity corps), in the neighborhoods where misery resides, distributing food and medicine, protecting immigrants from neo-Nazi attacks. And this is making them popular. In fact, they are a bulwark for democracy when the politicians of austerity stand for authoritarian capitalism and order of the worse kind.
Tsipras was here in the U.S. showing himself to be the capable and energetic political leader that he is, and SYRIZA as the party that is ready, able, and willing to lead the Greek people out of their misery and the economy out of its depression.
He was accompanied by a delegation of three university professors who are also SYRIZA's MPs. They came to meet with U.S. Government and IMF officials, with think tank analysts, U.S. citizens and Occupy Wall Street activists in an effort to open a dialogue as well as dispel a mass media manufactured image of incendiary radicals rampaging in the streets of Athens.
Just a month before the Greek elections of June 2012 the European press branded Tsipras "the most dangerous man of Europe." This cost SYRIZA the election. During his visit, Tsipras observed, "They don't call Ponta [Romania's socialist Prime Minister] the boogie man of Europe! Why me?"
It's a good question.
Perhaps because the "Radical" in SYRIZA signals a party capable of thinking for itself, of providing just solutions to social problems and, above all, working for the Greek people instead of the Troika. And that makes the European centers of power and the international press uncomfortable.
In outlining what a SYRIZA government could do, Tsipras offered concrete steps about governing wisely and compassionately to alleviate the suffering of the Greek people. Referring to the policies of FDR, Tsipras called for "ending the austerity measures that have not worked." And he proposed a debt reduction similar to the one afforded to Germany in 1953 with debt repayment tied to a growth rate so that the country is able to survive and rebound. He called for Europe to adopt a more growth-oriented policy in the effort to arrest Greece's economic depression and address what is a growing "humanitarian crisis facing my country."
Tsipras's sharp intelligence and quick-witted good humor were clearly appreciated by his audiences in New York, and perhaps by the officials he met here as well. In an exchange with IMF's David Lipton, who welcomed Tsipras "to the belly of the beast," the President of SYRIZA replied: "The belly of the beast is indeed spacious. But it is tougher to be in its mouth. And at this moment the overwhelming majority of the Greek people find themselves in its mouth being chewed up."
The Greek government's reaction to SYRIZA's visit to the U.S. was rather different. The leader of the centrist PASOK (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement) partner in the current Greek government, Evangelos Venizelos, condemned Tsipras's trip and SYRIZA itself as two-faced, an unhappy reference to the split of the Greek Communist Party some 50 years ago into an "interior" party (SYRIZA's origin), and an "exterior" party, the orthodox CP (KKE). It is a luckless metaphor at best.
This and the daily attacks from the center right New Democracy party, however, only make clear that SYRIZA is a compelling and viable alternative in Greek politics.
The lesson of Greece extends beyond its borders, as Tsipras points out. "If you want to know how the current European economic policy is destroying Greece's social fabric and turning a mere recession into a deep financial crisis, then come to Greece. If you want to see how the imposition of 'fiscal discipline' has failed miserably to address the debt crisis in my country, then come to Greece. If you want to see how kleptocracy manages to remain in power and how it has destroyed an entire nation, then come to Greece."
SYRIZA indicts the "Robber Barons" of the Greek economy and the Greek state. For generations they have looted the country, hiding their wealth in European and Swiss banks, reporting zero income and paying no taxes. They have corrupted the Greek politicians and the tax bureaucrats alike, bribing their way out of their tax responsibilities openly and with scandalous regularity while the working people pay for 97% of the Greek state budget. "Why should taxes only be paid by honest low-income citizens while those that have the financial means don't pay taxes at all?" Tsipras asked his audiences. "They have created this problem, not the hard working people and the middle class Greeks, and they should be responsible for solving it."
"The Greek economic crisis is not a crisis created by the Greek State," Tsipras argued. "It was created by the economic bust of the U.S. and European financial markets. Under these conditions the bankrupt Greek state is forced to borrow money from the EU and the IMF to give to the bankrupt banks, money which in turn disappears in the black holes of these banks."
Tsipras added that if the IMF "stops interfering in such an inelegant way ... a solution may be found by us," say Tsipras.
To the charge of inexperience, he forcefully and "proudly" repeated at each venue in which he spoke. "Yes, we are, in fact, inexperienced. We are inexperienced in forming shady deals with oligarchs in Greece and robber barons who have been governing all these years. Yes, we are inexperienced in covering up scandals and payoffs like the infamous Siemens scandal or the Lagarde list. Yes, we are inexperienced. We have never signed any memorandums that run contrary to the logic of macroeconomics. Yes, our thoughts are steady and so are our hands. But above all, [our hands] they are clean."
Tsipras and the other members of the SYRIZA delegation insisted throughout their visit on the need for connecting working folks and progressive movements across Europe. Their response to the Greek crisis is not a go-it-alone project. He insisted on the mutual need of Greece for the European Union, and the European Union for Greece. He and SYRIZA offer "our vision for the necessary changes that have to take place in Greece so that we can change from being the guinea pig of the crisis to the country that will serve as a starting point for new progressive changes that will lead the worldwide economy to safe harbors."
Asked by an audience member at CUNY if he was planning to nationalize the banks once elected, he responded: "Nationalize what? Their debt that is currently been paid by the Greek government and in turn by the Greek people? The individuals and corporations that own them don't have any assets and they have not put a penny of their own to capitalize their banks. It is best, I think, that we start with new banks, responsible to their depositors instead of these speculative institutions we have now."
It's quite possible that SYRIZA will enter into a coalition with DIMAR, the junior partner of the current government, to form a new government. DIMAR is a leftwing party that split from SYRIZA just prior to the last election over the dubious reason that it supported remaining in the Euro zone while it was rumored and without serious foundation that SYRIZA did not. Right now it is supporting the current government policies that are hurting its own constituents.
The left in Greece needs to let bygones be bygones. A grand left party needs to be born with Tsipras's charismatic leadership at the helm to govern the country with the wisdom, justice, and equality that the country deserves. It is perhaps the only way that Greece and its people may survive.