Greece: hunger stalks the land

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The coalition government of Greece does not lose an opportunity to point out that its austerity programme is working, having achieved a surplus in its current account of almost one billion euros for 2013, the first such surplus in 12 years. But at what human cost? The result of the savage cuts imposed on Greece by the Troika of the European Union, IMF and European Central Banks is a bleak spiral of deteriorating conditions for the Greek people. Access to the basics of life: food, housing, heating and health care, is constantly cut back and restricted. These are deliberate economic policies designed to reduce costs, restore profitability and so shift wealth from the working class to the ruling class.

23% of families experienced periods of severe food shortages over the last year with 60% unable to regularly feed their children. With people unable to pay for electricity, there has been a rising toll of deaths from fires and carbon monoxide poisoning as the poor are forced to use cheaper but unsafe methods of heating and lighting their homes. In November 2013, an elderly woman perished in a house fire said to have been caused by her attempts to heat her home. In another case, a woman and her grandchild nearly died after a candle set their home alight. Electricity to the house had been cut off more than six months ago.

The crisis has hit immigrants, the poorest sections of the working class, hardest. And in December, a 13-year-old Serbian girl was fatally poisoned by fumes from a indoor brazier. School students marching to commemorate the police killing of a 15-year-old youth six years ago diverted their march past the church where the girl’s funeral was being held. In clear political recognition of who caused the crisis they chanted against the Greek prime minister: 'Sara was one of us - Samaras is a murderer!'

Youth unemployment stands at 60%, rising to 75% in some areas. The general unemployment rate is 27% as over a million jobs have already been lost. 25,000 jobs in the state and local sector are to go by the end of this year. Only 15% receive any unemployment benefit. The hollow mantra of the governments that everyone is all in this together is a proven lie. While five years ago the top 20% in Greece owned five times the wealth of those with the lowest incomes, today the multiple has increased to 7.5.

The devastating consequences of this process of wealth transfer - whereby the Greek working people are being made to pay off the debt of bankrupt private banks to the tune of €321.8bn - are of no concern to the troika. A projected budget surplus of €3bn for this year will not be applied to reduce this unjust loan or relieve alarming social want. Such surpluses are taken approvingly as indications of prudent fiscal balances - at the expense of social need. €3.2bn is to be cut from social spending as health care is further slashed.

The troika are demanding further and deeper cuts. Negotiations in Berlin were followed by the Greek parliament in Athens passing its 2014 budget in the last month of last year. It covered familiar territory - reduce social spending, cut jobs and privatise. The usual troika tactic of threatening to withhold the next tranche of bailout money for non-compliance was again deployed as the conservative New Democracy government - whose polling stands at 25% - whined about the difficulties of further cuts. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was reminded sharply by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the banks are in charge! The Greek government's budget was based on €5.6bn of cuts but the troika wants €1bn more. Despite the bailouts since 2010 amounting to €240bn, total debt now stands at €321.8bn heading towards 175% of Greece’s Gross Domestic Product. Far from Merkel and Samaras’ rhetoric about light at the end of the tunnel, the Greek workers are stepping further into the perpetual darkness of indebtedness to the vulture banks.

Faced with this gross attack on living standards, the resistance of workers has continued: Athens University and other associated institutions have seen important solidarity between students, support workers and academic staff in opposing compulsory redundancies. Faced with similar forced job losses, school janitors, cleaning staff and doctors have been on strike and have militantly marched on the government ministries responsible. There they have suffered the bullying brutality of the fascist-dominated riot police defending the interests of the banks and the wealthy.

This state violence is most extreme in the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. Human rights organisations have expressed their concerns about the hostile 'push back' policy of Greek border patrols. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees has taken evidence from survivors of a deliberately clumsy tow of a refugee boat redirected to Turkish waters. Children drowned in the hearing of their Syrian and Afghan parents. These racist killings took place at the end of January 2014 but accounts have been around for some time of boats being rammed, people being sworn at, assaulted and thrown into the sea.

All opposition to austerity has to take up this central issue of racism with its murderous consequences and division of working class struggle. That opposition has to be manifested concretely and consistently in the streets, workplaces and communities. It remains to be seen how effective resistance will be when taken inside the parliament of the European Union. At a recent conference of the Party of the European Left in December, Alexis Tsipras - leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left/Syriza - was proposed as a candidate for President of the European Commission. Concern has been growing that the price of Syriza’s elevation to such offices is the abandonment of its original outright repudiation of austerity and paying off the bankers’ debts. Such a clear, rebellious orientation powerfully mobilised the working class in Greece and brought Syriza into popular contention for government in 2012. This progressive development seemed to herald a radical, socialist challenge to the agendas of the ruling classes in Europe. The present coalition government of New Democracy and PASOK is doomed, recognised as troika stooges. As European and local elections approach, Syriza will be tested in preparation for a future national election. Resistance against austerity will continue as the Greek working class forges the weapons of organisation and unity its needs to defend and advance its interests.

Michael MacGregor