A new beginning for Greece and for Europe starts today!


In Greece, the new government is bringing optimism to many. I talked with Sofia Tzitzikou the vice president of UNICEF Greece and a dedicated activist for health rights. As a pharmacist she became one of the key volunteers to run a community clinic in Athens that has served the population made destitute after the scandal of the speculative coup on Greece. The Troika was sent with no legitimacy to implement neoliberal structural adjustment program renamed austerity measures.

Sofia first said that the election of Syriza gave her a sentiment of optimism, although she was aware of external and internal powerful pressures from Capital, represented by investors and speculators of all sorts who participated to the destruction of Greece.

She described the reaction in Athens after the election as full of emotion rather than pure joy. “They could not believe what happened,” she said. The evening of the election some in the streets asked, “Is it a dream?” The crowd was not jubilant as for a soccer game. Instead of honking, there was a great lucidity that there will be no magic to recovery. Sofia senses that a new solidarity has been formed through the suffering of the past years. Actually today, 70% of Greeks are convinced that the new prime minister and his team will succeed.

Certainly the women cleaners of the finance minister were aware of this new solidarity. They resisted the pressure of the establishment and challenged the previous government of Antonis Samaras that envisioned privatization and complete removal of labor protection as the future for Greece. The Supreme Court was supposed to decide their case. Instead the new government of Alexis Tsipras re-employed them immediately. It also reestablished electricity to the 300 000 households who could not afford it and raised the minimum wage to the level it was before.

People have been unified in the darkness of unemployment and attacks against unions. In this context the health care system erased about 40 % of the population from the system, immediately depriving them of medical care. Women were not guaranteed any sexual or reproductive health. To the scandal of some, women not able to deliver their babies in a safe manner.

According to Sofia, the country is in ruins and needs to rebuild.

The new government’s first symbolic action was to remove the anti riot barricades that were placed in front of the parliament to block the anti austerity demonstrators. Another immediate measure was to stop the privatization of the public domains such as the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki and the electricity services. They also eliminated the co-pay in public hospitals. Then, the new government declared the end of “Xenia Zeus” a program reported by Human Rights Watch as an abusive crack down on migrants. These symbolic and people-oriented decisions brought confidence needed in order to continue the necessary changes.

Sofia’s only regret is that women don’t hold any of the key ministries of new government: “That is a handicap, I don’t want to be against but it would have been more positive.” Still, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, the new Migration Minister, wants to grant Greek citizenship to all children born in Greece to end this state of no rights for migrants’ children born in Greece.

Sofia recognized that to see Zoé Konstantopoulou becoming the youngest president of the parliament elected with the greatest number of votes in the history of Greece compensated a little for the minimal women’s representation in the government. Zoé Konstantopoulou has been active on every front since her first election at the parliament. She testified in the documentary “Canaries in the Coal Mine.”

As the president of the parliament she pledged to combat corruption. She wants to reopen judicial affairs that have been unlawfully forgotten. This would end the privileges that have degraded parliament over the past years. One example of this degradation is the armaments scandal, involving German companies, occurring while pension and salaries were being amputated. Konstantopoulou is calling for transparency and participation of the social actors and the removal of the formal elite that hold no parliamentary positions. She also will reconstitute the commission on the Nazi war reparations and German debt to Greece. Her program is ambitious but she has proven in the past that she pursues what she believes to be the best for the country.

Sofia expressed confidence but warned, “The feminist movement has even more responsibility now that it can organize. It is the right time to present propositions based on solidarity.” She recognized that solidarity in Europe is crucial against neoliberal powers. Greece is showing the rest of Europe that civil society is still alive and democratic and there is an alternative to the austerity measures and the rule of the market and its oligarchs.

Sofia explained that the urgency is the questions of women’s rights and protection as they have been the first victims of the austerity measures. This is why they are joining the European Caravan of the World March of Women that is “working to build a feminist, solidarity-based economy, one that alters existing patterns of production and reproduction, distribution and consumption”. Sofia Tzitzikou concluded, “Ca commence maintenant” (“It starts today!”)


(Photo Credit: Lefteris Piatarakis/AP)

The experiment continues, and we are all still canaries in the coal mine

When Greek public debt exploded in 2010 some started asking, “Why Greece why now?”

The documentary “Les canaries dans la mine” (the Canaries in the Coal Mine), initially released in French in 2013, incorporates many voices from unionists, community health center managers, students, to journalists and politicians and more. They all conclude that what happened to Greece is an experiment to dismantle public services and democratic ideals. As Zoe says in the documentary: “Greece is a laboratory for those who think that human rights, human existence can be subjected to experiments.”

I recently talked with Sophia Tzitzikou on the occasion of the release of the documentary in English (with English subtitles). She runs a health community center in Athens and was interviewed in the documentary. I asked how the situation has evolved since the filming of the documentary: “It is worse.” As a result of the inhuman austerity measures that have destroyed public services and employment, poverty in on the rise. “There are no policies in favor of the poor, and public hospitals continue to be shut down.” The situation is especially dire for psychiatric hospitals: “Three of them were recently closed in Athens. The patients were simply sent to the streets.”

As a member of Greece’s UNICEF delegation, Sophia emphasized, “36% off Greek children now live in poverty, with 340 000 of them in conditions of social exclusion.” Her tone expressed her anger, as she added that the abortion rate has never been so high. Sophia explained, “Women simply don’t want to bring life into this misery.” Not to forget that in Greece giving birth used to be covered within a decent public health care system that has been taken apart by austerity measures imposed by The Troika, the financiers of Europe.

Even these numbers hardly describe the new reality. As Sophia said, “We have the feeling that our lives don’t belong to us anymore. Human rights are violated everyday, rights to work, rights to health, rights to have children, rights to live. We are now removed from all of that.”

The experiment continues. Puerto Rico is one of the last casualties of this neoliberal attack on the public and its services. This time, the order to enforce austerity measures on the US territory came directly from Wall Street with no shame. The credit-rating agencies like Standard & Poor set the tone as they “downgraded” the territory. Then, using the same tools as the Troika did in Greece, the remedy was made self-evident: cut public budgets, close public schools and reduce public services. The US financial markets have their grip on the island. Again, unions have been equally targeted. We see the same tools being used to discard public services over and over.

Watch the Canaries in the Coal Mine, it will inform you about these neoliberal attacks on workers, women and the public at large…us. We are all still canaries in the coal mine.


(Video Credit: YouTube/Yannick Bovy)

We are all canaries in the coal mine

In December 2011 Swiss financial journalist Myret Zaki asked a group of economists a simple question, “Why now?  For example, you have all noticed that suddenly Greece was in crisis”. She noted that it was not because of Greece’s public debt, which had been fairly stable and not especially large. The economists mentioned Goldman Sachs, which had advised the Greek government to sell its financial products and then informed their own clients and friends about Greece’s “financial weakness”. Myret Zaki completed the picture with the story of the 2010 Soros Dinner, when a few hedge funds managers cooked up an attack on the Euro through Greece. The Wall Street Journal report on the dinner quoted Hans Hufschmid, a hedge-fund administrator (GlobeOp Financial Services SA), in London and New York: “This is an opportunity…to make a lot of money.”

We all know what happened next. We remember the demonstrations and how these speculators precipitated the demise of employees, citizens who were to pay for their financial coup. As France’s General Commissioner for Public Investment René Ricol explained, “This is a combat between the world of finance, the world who wants to make a lot of money very quickly, and the world of `true life’”. With the support of neoliberal doctrine, the world of finance has subsumed civil society.

But that was then.

Today, in Greece the world of “true life” has reorganized after the shock of the financial attack that sent many into poverty and precariousness. Taken by surprise, people believed at first that the country had overspent its revenues; now they know that overspending was not the problem.

The recent documentary, Canaries In the Coal Mine, shows how the State is controlling the revolt and the fight for reestablishing the democratic civil society values. This story should be understood as “a lot more than Greece’s tragedy.”

Greek trade unionists defending steel workers who were not paid during 18 months were sent to court, accused of terrorism for organizing demonstrations and for showing workers’ frustration. As prosecutions of heads of associations representing workers, immigrants, and others demonstrate, anti terrorist laws have been used to install a general surveillance of “true life” populations, producing the legal tools to choke any contestation.

The criminalization of Greece’s social movements has been generalized. The documentary makes it clear Greece is in Europe. Across Europe, many are being threatened by the same shock of the unfettered and ferocious financial powers. Everyone who fights for rights is in danger, according to Oliver Stein (Progress Lawyers Network) and Pierre Arnaud Perrouty (Human Rights League, Belgium): “The ones who carry the contestation protect the rights of us all…. They are the canaries in the coal mine”. Once the canaries are smothered, everyone will feel the blast.

Last week, Moodys upgraded its rating of Greece by two points. Why? “The Greek economy is bottoming out after nearly six years of recession”. Greece underwent appropriate structural reforms.

Yes, thanks to an artificially engineered recession, the Greeks touched bottom. That is not a positive sign!

Sofia Tzitzikou, who runs a community clinic in Athens, knows “the bottom” well. Greeks, who had a very effective health-care system until the “crisis”, lost their social security. Almost 50% of the population does not have access to social security, to health care. Women have been particularly affected as their reproductive rights are compromised, since women now have to pay for these services.

Sofia explains that the role of the community clinics is not to substitute for the public services that are the State’s responsibility. But people are suffering and dying, and so solidarity is indispensable. She explains that this engagement is also political work. Clinic workers explain to their patients that they have to get involved as well to revive and counter the structural reforms prescribed by the Troika (European Commission, IMF, European Central Bank).

“In Greece we have a systematic infringement on human rights, social rights, workers’ rights, on democratic rule of law, on the welfare state” declares Zoe Konstantopoulou, a representative at the parliament.

Canaries in the Coal Mine captures the aftermath of the neoliberal financial shock on “true life.” It debunks the construction of a crisis that is actually an experiment in controlling civil society for financial benefits for the few. That’s what happened in Greece, which, not that long ago, was one of the top 20 economies. Sofia explains that right now, in Greece, democracy is absent. Democracy is to serve people for the improvement of people’s lives, not the opposite. The documentary opens and ends with music by Greek rap artist Paulos Fyssas, assassinated in Athens by a Golden Dawn fascist activist.

What happened in Greece is possible anywhere. Only solidarity, in particular European solidarity, and true democratic resilience might counter this brutal attack on civil society. We should listen carefully to Athenian student Melanie Mavrogiorgi: “We don’t have the army in the government to control us. So we have hope as we see people still demonstrating. They are still hunting and fighting for their rights. I think that is a piece of democracy.”

The documentary ends: “Pay attention to the canaries in the coal mine. They warn us of the dangerous gas that neoliberal politics wants to blow up. It is time to get out of the mine!” The documentary ends; the struggle continues.


(Photo Credit: Twitter / 15M Barcelona)  (Video Credit: Yannick Bovy / YouTube)