Yesterday was the end of a European conference against debt and austerity being held in Thessaloniki, Greece. The conference was organised by the recently established International Citizen Debt Audit Network (ICAN), which advocates public audits of national debt to determine what is illegitimate and shouldn't be paid - a model used successfully in Ecuador to achieve a measure of social justice. Delegates from across Europe are also taking the opportunity to meet Greeks and see for themselves the terrible poverty into which they are now being thrown as a result of the austerity meted out by EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund.
Nick Dearden, director of Jubilee Debt Campaign in the UK, has been blogging about it all on the ICAN website. In the blog post below he draws some parallels with Greece and the experience of Latin America in previous decades:
We met three people today who summed up the depth of the crisis being experienced by Greek people, but also the courageous attempts to build a new, more democratic society. I had to pinch myself to remember I was in Europe, the stories are so familiar – but from Latin America.
First a representative of Women Against the Debt, a network started 18 months ago to support women experiencing the worst aspects of the crisis. Women are often the first to lose their jobs, and often have to care for kids whose kindergartens have closed down, and for the ill whose healthcare has been removed.
A trip to the doctor or hospital now costs €25 – and climbing. Having a baby sets you back €800 – double that if you need a caesarian. Without the money, you’re told to ‘go home and do the best you can’. Free access to contraception and abortion have been removed. Vaccinations for children have virtually stopped. The big pharmaceutical companies now refuse to sell medicines to the hospitals.
We spoke to a pharmacist who said every day she came across people who couldn’t afford their medication, and many who take a vastly reduced dosage to make it last longer. She told us: “In this corner of Europe, the situation is very bad – it’s tragic. People die through lack of access to basic health services.”
When hospitals refuse healthcare to impoverished women, Women Against the Debt persuade or humiliate hospitals to admit women without payment. They also work with newly formed self-help clinics, set-up by healthcare workers operating in a voluntary capacity, to get free information to young, impoverished women about family planning.
Meanwhile, Thessoloniki’s public services are facing the threat of privatisation – under Troika instructions to start selling off public assets to help pay the debt. This represents is a further attempt to suck wealth from the public, in order to bolster the profits of the private sector.
Initiative 136 is an anti-privatisation campaign which has studied countries like Bolivia which have defeated water privatisation. The Initiative has now established cooperatives across the city to try to raise the money to buy the water utility – offering a non-transferable share to everyone in the community which would translate into a democratic say over the operations of the water utility.
According to the campaign, this forms part of a bigger picture of “people taking control of their own lives.” The campaign believes it isn’t enough to prevent privatisation, the water needs to be “put into the hands of the community”. In this sense the crisis has become an opportunity – albeit one which has caused huge suffering – to start building a more democratic society.
Finally, we met workers from a factory which had been abandoned by its owners as a result of the crisis. The workers have waged a 21-month campaign – without pay and thus enduring extreme poverty – to take control of the factory and start operating it as a co-operative.
The factory is a cause-celebrity in Southern Europe – and Voime (the name of the factory) is well-known. Like the anti-privatisation initiative, the workers don’t see their struggle as an isolated fight to regain their livelihood; “it’s an attempt to regain control of our lives across the country”.