Greece’s battle for relief from its European financial creditors has attracted substantial sympathy and solidarity in Quebec, especially among those fighting the austerity blitz of the Couillard government.
On July 5, Greek voters resoundingly rejected the ultimatums of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, a.k.a. the Troika, opening the way for the country’s left-wing Syriza-led government to pursue a course toward regaining economic sovereignty and relief from neoliberal austerity.
On the eve of the Greek referendum, several hundred Québécois assembled in front of the Greek Consulate in Montréal to show their support for the country’s government, which had appealed for international solidarity in its confrontation with the Eurozone leaders. Among the sponsors of the demonstration was Québec solidaire (QS), the only party in Quebec that has come out in firm support of Greece.
“The Greek prime minister and his party Syriza cannot accept the plan submitted to Greece by the Troika without renouncing their democratic mandate,” QS deputy Amir Khadir told the crowd. “No one knows what Sunday’s vote will produce. But for the first time in decades a country crushed by international finance has an opportunity to defend its sovereignty by democratically taking a position on some important decisions that concern it.”
Other speakers included Dimitrios Roussopoulos of the Committee for Solidarity with the Greek People (“We are all Greeks”), Alain Ouimet, first vice-president of the Montréal Central Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) (“This initiative [of the Greek government] gives us new hope”), and Ronald Cameron of Alternatives, who noted that his organization had recently organized a Festival des solidarités in Montréal with the participation of a representative of Syriza at a panel on international struggles against austerity.
QS president Andrés Fontecilla of QS reminded the crowd of the high stakes involved in Greece’s battle. “We in Quebec also have a Liberal government that is an enthusiast of austerity and cutbacks in public spending…. So in their successes and in their setbacks, the struggle of the Greek people is also our struggle. Whatever the outcome of the vote on Sunday we will be in solidarity with them.”
When it was announced on July 5 that the Greek people had voted by 61% to 39% for the “No” to the Troika, Québec solidaire issued a statement hailing the result as “a formidable victory for democracy and, on a European scale, the greatest setback for neoliberalism up to now.” It called on the European powers and creditors to recognize and respect the decision of the Greek people.
Noting its own links with “our cousin Syriza,” QS hailed that party’s “political courage in holding this referendum in the face of hostility and blackmail” from Europe’s capitalist leaders and media. This historic vote, it said, “turns things around and proves it is possible to stand up to international finance…. It is a major victory that heralds substantial changes in the European political dynamic, and even elsewhere.”
In an op-ed article in the July 8 edition of the Montréal daily Le Devoir, QS president Andrés Fontecilla said “the victory of the No highlights the fact that Greece’s economic crisis is de facto a political crisis for the European Union.” The “permanent financial blackmail” of the European powers, he noted, reflects their fears of the potential domino effect on other countries in southern Europe.
Syriza has created a political space that we had forgotten. Now that the No has won, the new European dilemma is what will happen with Italy, Spain and Portugal, which are in similar situations, once the Greeks have called their creditors to order and given themselves the right to decide their economic orientations themselves….
The results of the Greek referendum place on the agenda of financial Europe a conception of popular sovereignty that necessarily encompasses the economic field. This sovereignty is incompatible with the euro zone but also with austerity in general.
And Fontecilla noted that “the people of Greece, the cradle of western democracy, have chosen Syriza, a small party and close cousin of Québec solidaire, to remind the financial elites and their political servants of this inconvenient truth. What comes next is uncertain, but we must salute the Greek audacity.”
Québécois observe Greece’s referendum campaign
In the days preceding the historic referendum, a number of Québécois travelled to Greece to observe firsthand the political dynamics. Among them was Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a well-known leader of the 2012 student strike and “Maple Spring” upsurge in Quebec. Thanks to contacts in the Greek diaspora living in Montréal, the Québécois were able to meet with elected officials, activists and others involved in the campaign.
“I am fascinated to see to what degree the context of austerity has provided an opportunity that the left decided to grasp,” Nadeau-Dubois told a Le Devoir reporter. “It was the end of the logic of resistance and counter-power. The discourse was modernized and updated, becoming clear, accessible, pragmatic. The party [Syriza] decided to really take over the government. It is wonderful to see this.”
In an article Le Devoir published on its front page June 27, Nadeau-Dubois wrote from Athens about his impressions.
You never really get used to poverty, but with time societies learn to administer it. In the central neighborhoods of Athens, some scenes of extreme deprivation have disappeared. ‘Now, I no longer have to jump over entire families sleeping in the street while I go to work,’ sighs Theodora Kotsaka, a political scientist and researcher at the Poulantzas Institute, a think tank associated with Syriza… We have learned to manage poverty. Networks of community solidarity have been established to give people relief. There is mutual assistance…. But insecurity is a concrete reality for a major part of the Greek population.
Nadeau-Dubois described the recent experience of a typical young militant.
Venetia, 22, is part of a generation that knows its future is grim but who has decided to remain to fight. In the summer of 2011, when her family was hit hard by the austerity measures imposed by the Troika, she went into the streets with thousands of other Greeks of all ages and milieus, occupying public squares for weeks. Since then, she has never stopped fighting. A member of the left wing of Syriza, she harshly criticizes her leader, Alexis Tsipras: ‘He underestimates the Greek people. In every home, someone is unemployed. We are ready to do what we must in order to escape the politics of the memorandums.’
Questioned about the unpredictable — and potentially catastrophic, according to some — economic consequences of an exit by Greece from the euro zone, she snaps back, referring to the European creditors: ‘It’s unpredictable for them too! Syriza must stay firm, or else it will lose power!
Her views are shared by an increasing number of MPs in the Syriza-led government, Nadeau-Dubois reported.
In recent days, many of them have openly criticized the offer tabled by Athens to its creditors, which in many respects represented a significant retreat from the party’s election promises. This was the price the Greek prime minister was prepared to pay in order to return to the country with an agreement, but the response of the European ‘partners’ was merciless. With a few pen strokes in red ink they demanded of the Greek negotiators massive reforms in pensions that they knew very well were politically suicidal for the government. A few hours from a default in payments, Tsipras found himself faced with a terrible dilemma: to give in, as the Greek politicians before him had done, or to stand firm and risk an exit from the euro zone….
‘More and more activists and MPs in Syriza are ready for a ‘Grexit,’ but they forget too often that a majority of Greeks are still profoundly attached to Europe,” says Vassilis Kosmopoulos, a documentary producer and long-time observer of Greek politics, whom I met in an Athens restaurant.
While a recent poll reported 48% support for the Tsipras government, he is adamant that no one should be deceived by this surprising popularity. ‘Syriza’s vote is more volatile than that of the traditional parties. Tsipras knows his government is fragile that is why he is currently trying to gain time, to consolidate its power.’
The difficult situation facing the Tsipras government, wrote Nadeau-Dubois, “reflects the profound paradox that characterizes Greek society. In many people’s minds, participation in the European monetary union is still perceived as the sign of belonging to the European family, a synonym for modernity and prosperity.
Nikos Raptis, 86, has never been a member of a political party although he has always considered himself a militant and he knows his country’s history like no one else. Seated in the chic Athens Café, which he tells us is ‘the meeting place for the Greek elite over the last 30 years,’ he speaks to us with passion of his people and their contradictions.
‘Our national identity, wrongly or rightly, is in part based on the idea that we are the cradle of western civilization. For many, above all the youth of the Tsipras generation, Europe appears today as the embodiment of that origin. To be expelled from the euro zone would be interpreted by many Greeks as a rejection, a punishment.’
So why did Greece, as recently as January and in historic numbers, elect a party that was distinguished by its combative tone toward the European creditors? ‘That’s the tension, the contradiction, the antithesis! By voting for Syriza, the Greeks renewed their long and left tradition of resistance,’ he exclaims, remembering again that he celebrated the departure of the Nazis from Athens at the age of 14. ‘They wanted to put an end to the regime of the memorandums and they were right, of course! But if they really want to finish with the spiral of austerity and the dictatorship of Berlin, they will some day or other have to say good-bye to neoliberal Europe, or at least to the euro zone. They cannot have both.’
Among the Québécois in Greece just prior to the referendum was Francine Pelletier, a feminist writer and documentary film-maker who writes an often insightful weekly column in Le Devoir. She attended the Resistance Festival 2015, an annual event in Athens hosting left political parties, popular leaders, intellectuals and progressive movements from a broad political and geographical spectrum. A major speaker last year was Alexis Tsipras of Syriza. This year the featured speakers included Bolivian vice-president Álvaro García Linera and long-time writer and activist Tariq Ali, among others.
In a report from Athens published in Le Devoir on June 27 and headlined “The blackmail of the banks, or how to become a Marxist in five days,” Pelletier portrayed a polarized Greece in terms similar to those of Nadeau-Dubois. Bolivia’s García Linera, she said, had told his Festival audience that the Greek people held “the destiny of Europe in [their] hands,” and that another way was possible. “The people owe nothing to the IMF, it’s the IMF that owes us something,” said “the former guerrilla.”
No one there needed to be convinced. It is precisely the rejection of the ‘memorandums’ that explains the growing popularity of Syriza, which has gone from a puny 4% in 2004 to 48% today. The majority of Greeks have had enough of the measures imposed” by the Troika.
Since 2008, Greece has seen its GDP drop by 42%, unemployment climb to 27% (50% among youth), its public broadcasting system closed, its health services amputated. The ‘longest recession ever experienced in Europe in peacetime,’ according to the Truth Committee on Public Debt. The debt is not the result of excessive spending — lower than the public expenditures of other countries in the euro zone — but of a set of circumstances including the extremely high interest rates of the European banks and a drastic increase in private debt following the adoption of the euro in 2001.
Pelletier noted that “90% of the money loaned to Greece already returns to the creditors — ‘sometimes the same day’— since it is repayment of the debt. Also, the agreement linking Greece to the European banks obliges it to comply with English law, another ‘blot to its sovereignty,’” she said, quoting Stélios Kouloglou, a journalist and Syriza deputy in the European Parliament.
The failure of the Euro group summit on June 18 had opened the door to a “strategy of terror” on the part of the financial authorities, said Pelletier. Reviving the scenario erected by Goldman Sachs shortly before Syriza’s election, there will be talk of an “uncontrollable situation,” of flight of capital, bank closures, economic trusteeship and new elections.
She quoted Greece’s then finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, speaking last April: “The government is facing a new kind of coup d’état. Our assailants are no long tanks, as in 1967, but the banks.”
According to Stélios Kouloglou, this ‘silent coup’ is mindful of what happened in Chile in the early 1970s. ‘Make the economy scream,’ Richard Nixon ordered, as a warning to anyone in America’s back yard who might be tempted by the Marxist adventure that they should behave.
Under a starry sky in Athens, Álvaro García Linera seized the opportunity last Saturday, saying: ‘Southern Europe is now experiencing what we went through in South America 30 years ago…. We were told ‘There will be no investments, no jobs, no technological development if you persist in taking the socialist road.’
The very elegant vice-president then went on to list what Bolivia had managed to do since the election of Evo Morales ten years ago: free university education, basic services (water, electricity) now guaranteed as fundamental rights, the rights of the indigenous and the environment, not to mention a government that collects 50% of the profits of the banks, 54% of the mines and 86% of natural gas. ‘Don’t let them tell you that another way of doing things is impossible,’ he concluded.
But, Pelletier reminded her readers, “economic sovereignty is not part of the mandate inherited by Alexis Tsipras last January. People want to end austerity while remaining in the euro zone. A mission that is increasingly proving to be impossible, given the European intransigence. Which of the two parties will yield? Will the hardline neoliberalism advocated by the new empire dare to show itself more human, more understanding toward Greece, if only out of fear of pushing it into the arms of Putin? Or will Syriza put enough water in its wine to lose its soul, and quite probably the next elections?”
This article originally appeared on Richard Fidler’s blog, Life on the Left.