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  February 16, 2012

Austerity Policy Destroying Greek Society

Dimitri Lascaris: Heart wrenching personal stories show that Greece should reject austerity deal and pull out of Eurozone
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Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer, journalist and activist. After working in the New York and Paris offices of a major Wall Street law firm, Dimitri became a class action lawyer in Canada. His practice focused on shareholder rights, environmental wrongs and human rights. In 2012, Canadian Lawyer Magazine named him one of the 25 most influential lawyers in Canada, and in 2013, Canadian Business Magazine named him one of the 50 most influential persons in Canadian business. Dimitri ran for the Green Party in Canada’s 2015 federal election and has served as the Justice Critic in the Green Party of Canada shadow cabinet.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.

When we see pictures of buildings burning in Athens, police and protesters, we hear debates about austerity and stimulus and such, it all seems a little bit abstract. What we don't often hear about is the very personal suffering of people who are under these severe austerity regime.

Now joining us to talk about his experience and his family in Greece is Dimitri Lascaris. He's a lawyer. He's called to practice in New York and Ontario, Canada. He was a securities lawyer. He's worked in New York and Paris for a major Wall Street firm. He's acted on behalf of the country France. He's worked for Greece. He's worked for German development bank and numerous cross-border security offerings. He's now a securities class action lawyer based in London, Ontario. And I should add he represents investors and not the banks. Thanks for joining us, Dimitri.


JAY: And for full transparency here, Dimitri's law firm is doing some pro bono legal work for The Real News as we sue people who have stolen our stories. But Dimitri, you've been on the phone with your sister, who was in Canada, is now living in Greece. What has she been telling you?

LASCARIS: The stories that she's been telling me are becoming increasingly dire. You know, she was raised here. She was educated at the University of Western Ontario in Ontario. She left Canada in the '90s to marry a young Greek gentleman who lived in a village of about 1,000 people about an hour from Athens. And they since had four children. And when she arrived, Greece had not yet joined the euro. The euro didn't exist. It had the drachma. And life there was not as prosperous, not as comfortable as it was here, but there was a certain degree of stability and security, and overall, you know, in many ways a superior quality of life, from her perspective.

You know, her husband had, at the time, a carpentry business, which he wanted to grow. And he decided to do that by investing a very large proportion of the family's wealth in German machinery, which he brought back at great expense to the family to Greece. And for a while his business was thriving. And then came the Greek financial crisis. Since that time, my sister describes—there's been a steady deterioration in the family's quality of life.

The first thing that [incompr.] was is in Greece families are very dependent upon private tutoring. The marketplace has always been—for jobs has been always quite competitive, and parents try to prepare their children to enter a difficult workforce. Of course, now it's become much more difficult. They couldn't afford to have tutors, so they got rid of those. Gradually their clients stopped being able to pay. Getting a client to pay even 5 percent of an outstanding balance was quite a stretch, because the clients were of course having to deal with their own debts. Many of them began to rely upon credit card debts to meet the basic necessities of life. And so the family's revenues largely dried up.

Then there was an infiltration of crime, violent crime, into her village of about 1,000 people. One day she was—very recently, as a matter of fact, she was attacked outside her door by a drug addict and her money was stolen. She's been to the funerals of two friends from the village who were killed by assailants who were desperate for money. The family now is basically dependent upon assistance from other family members. She knows of people in her own village who have to scrape by with whatever the pensioners in their own families are able to give them. And the situation really is just one of going day-to-day and just trying to survive at this stage.

JAY: And what's your sense from talking to your sister and other people, you know, that you have connection with in Greece about what they want? Do they want out of the eurozone? And they're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, but it's going to be hard whatever they do. So what's your sense of what people want?

LASCARIS: Well, people, I think, have had enough of austerity. There's no question of that. I think there is widespread and quite bitter resentment towards the European elites, and particularly the government of Germany. I had occasion to go to Greece myself in November of last year because my grandfather, who lived a very long life, suffered a stroke, and I wanted to be with him towards the end of his life. And I sat in a hospital room with eight other patients, with my grandfather, and they had a little television over his bed that everybody watched. And the room was largely silent one day, and Angela Merkel came on the screen, and there was just an outpouring of hostility towards, you know, the German chancellor. And I think people there have had enough of austerity.

But at the same time, there is a very significant reluctance even still—and it's quite remarkable—to abandon the euro. And I think that that really is—my own impression is that that's a function of the indoctrination of the population by the Greek political elite. They've adopted the Hank Paulson mantra, you know, that if you were to depart from the global financial system or the financial system, the architecture that's been established in Europe, then of course an apocalypse will ensue. And people, they fear the unknown. But I think the lessons of past defaults and currency devaluations tells a different story. And to my mind the future of Greece really lies in a withdrawal from the euro and a return to the drachma and the reestablishment of national sovereignty, because that is being eroded at a dramatic rate on a daily basis.

JAY: Well, speaking of national sovereignty, one of the provisions in the new deal the Greek government made with the European finance and political elite just a couple days ago calls for much more privatization. They're talking about airports and seaports, and previously they'd already been talking about things that had been tourist sites and islands. What seems to be on the chopping block? And what's your reaction to it?

LASCARIS: Well, certainly the government is talking about selling infrastructure. It's talking about selling the national telephone company, which was something that was resisted for a long time. Basically, anything that can generate revenue, I think, is potentially at risk of being sold to private investors in the current environment. And what's really most troubling is that it's being done in circumstances where the government has very little leverage. And what is likely to ensue, and in fact what is unfolding, is a fire sale of national assets. And at the end of the day, people will look back at what's transpiring today and will say that they were sold out, actually betrayed by their leaders, the most important of whom isn't even elected by the people, Lucas Papademos.

JAY: Now, you were involved earlier—and I read your resume a bit—in some privatization that took place in France. So why is that different than what's happening in Greece now?

LASCARIS: I was working in Paris in the '90s, and at that time, the French government, I think, was much more conscious of maintaining national sovereignty, was much more progressive in nature. And so the privatization schemes that the government pursued at that time were much more modest. And rather than selling majority stakes and surrendering control over important industries to foreign investors and other private investors, the government was selling minority stakes and only doing so on a very targeted basis.

What's going on here is really of entirely different scale. I mean, it really is just a broad-based firesale of national assets from every sector of the economy. And what's going to be left at the end of the day, if anything is left, is a rump of national sovereignty and a loss of control over people's destinies in Greece.

JAY: Now, if Greece were to pull out of the eurozone, the argument goes that it would be just a sinkhole, that without these loans, the Greek economy would completely collapse, even though it's not like—not that what's happening now is good, but it would be worse. So how do you envision that would work?

LASCARIS: Well, first of all, the Greek economy has collapsed. The Athens News reported today that the GDP in 2011 experienced a record annual plunge of 7 percent. It's the fourth consecutive year of a deepening recession. Unemployment rates amongst youths have surpassed, I understand, 50 percent. The general unemployment rate is in excess of 20 percent. There was a rumor the other day that ATMs in Athens were empty, were running out. There are stories appearing in reputable media outlets that people are abandoning their children in the streets. I mean, it's really difficult to imagine a more horrific situation for the populace.

What needs to be done is a currency devaluation. And within the eurozone, Greece does not have the ability to achieve a currency devaluation. And so what is being imposed upon the Greek people is a ruthless internal devaluation. The wages are being eviscerated and people are being impoverished. And at the end of the day, when, you know, what you've created basically is a large pool of extraordinarily cheap labor, you're going to see a race to the bottom in the broader continent, in my view. And eventually these policies are going to find their home in the heartland of the eurozone, in France and in Germany. And really what would be best is for Greece to withdraw and to engage in a currency devaluation to enhance its competitiveness by that means rather than by brutalizing the population through vicious wage cuts.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Dimitri.

LASCARIS: My pleasure. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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