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The Greek Crisis Hits Chicago

Although Athens is nearly 5,500 miles away, the effects of the economic crisis in Greece reach all the way to Chicago in a variety of forms. Family, friends, dual citizenship and financial interests keep the eyes and ears of American Greeks turned anxiously east.

When asked if  she had family or friends in Greece, Kyriaki Rotta, 54, said “Everybody.” Rotta spent large portions of her life in both the U.S. and Greece, and says a strong connection to Greece is something she will pass on to her children.

“One way or the other it does affect everybody,” she said of the turmoil back home. “Every single Greek person in this country that lives here, it doesn’t matter how many generations back they moved, they all own properties [in Greece], so it does affect them.”

The Greek economy shrunk by 6.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012, and this year’s austerity budget includes cuts to pensions and a 20 percent cut to minimum wage.

“They should have never gone to the Euro in the first place. Never,” said Ioannis Lambros, 64.

Although he has been in the U.S. for 45 years, Lambros still has family in Greece.

“You buy one tomato, you pay a dollar with the drachma before. After they turn to the Euro it costs them two dollars for the same thing. How can you live on 600 euro per month? How can you live?”

Lambros said that he didn’t pay attention to this year’s crucial elections.

“No. I don’t want to [watch]. They don’t go nowhere… Greek politicians don’t go to jail,” Lambros said.

The Greek situation is very severe, but the economic facts behind it are simpler than most people realize, said Georgios Karras, an economics professor at University of Illinois Chicago.

Karras said that the main culprit was vast government budget deficits and debt.

Greece’s debt has climbed to more than 160 percent of the nation’s GDP. The European Union and the IMF have provided 240 billion euro (more than $300 million) in bailouts thus far in exchange for a promise of austerity measures to pay for debts.

A recent poll showed that a majority of Greeks want to stay on the Euro, but for that to be possible Greece must accept the harsh austerity program.

The public has not responded favorably to the austerity measures. The elections on May 6 did not produce a majority, and the ensuing round of attempts to form a majority alliance proved inconclusive. The two parties that arranged the bailout– parties that have been the mainstream for generations– were less popular this year with many votes moving to the outward edges of the political spectrum.

“I used to be with the republicans, but I have completely switched and I’m going toward the left,” said Rotta. “I’m going toward a young guy who does want to support Greece, who does want Greece to belong to the Greeks and running its own mentality because Greek mentality can not communicate with the rest of the political world.”

Rotta was referring to Alexis Tsipras, the leader far-left political party Syriza. Syriza won the second-most votes in the May 6 elections behind the center-right New Democracy.

Rotta said that most of her family had changed parties this time around.

When asked if she was thankful to be in the relatively secure U.S or upset to be away from home in such a pivotal time, Rotta gave no hesitation.

“I’m upset I’m not there. My family matters keep me here right now, I wish I was there, I wish I could do my part, unfortunately I can’t but I’ll try any other way,” she said.

“A lot of votes are missing right now,” she said. Greek law does not permit absentee voting.

Some American protesters have also found inspiration in the struggle of their Greek counterparts.

A group of about two dozen anti-NATO protesters rallied outside the Greek Embassy in Chicago last week cheering on the Greek workers for “standing up to the banks.”

“We just see them as a vanguard in terms of the way they’re reacting. Instead of just sitting down and taking it, they’re standing up and fighting,” said protester Jill Hill.

Sara Flounders of the International Action Center saw NATO as a significant part of Greece’s troubles because it requires Greece to invest in military capabilities at a time when there are bigger issues at hand.

“The bailout agreements that have been reached between the European and U.S. bankers all insist that Greece continue to buy more arms and pay the interest on their debts for past weapons,” said Flounders.

Flounders added that she and fellow protesters were inspired by the struggle and the determination of the Greek people in resisting austerity programs.

A statue in Chicago's Greektown neighborhood.

A second attempt at elections on June 17 will not only decide whether or not Greece remains in the euro zone but also the economic health of other European nations.

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