USA Today: Obama visit doesn’t excite many Greeks still coping with an economic crisis

Ioanna-Maria Gertsou will stay home when President Obama arrives in the birthplace of democracy Tuesday to promote democratic values and support for the still suffering, debt-ridden country.

After eight years of living with a depressed economy, Greeks like Gertsou have little faith in the American president’s message of hope. “Greece is not going to get out of this crisis whatever he says,” said the 38-year-old child psychologist, who believes protests expected to greet Obama also are also pointless.

The Greek government, by contrast, sees Obama’s two-day visit as his presidency ends as vital for convincing the country’s foreign lenders to reach a new agreement on restructuring Greece’s debt and shoring up political leaders with disillusioned voters.

Left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ popularity sank after he broke campaign pledges by hiking taxes and slashing spending to pay interest on massive loans Greece has accumulated. Meanwhile, his reforms to revitalize the economy have not yielded many changes.

More than a quarter of Greeks have lost their jobs, while a third of the population are living near the poverty line. Many educated youth have left the country, raising concerns about a brain drain. And the country is stuck in a downward spiral of joblessness and a lack of government and consumer spending to turn things around.

“The economic crisis is still ongoing because the government and society perpetuate the same problems that led us to the crisis,” said Dimitris Charalambis, a University of Athens political scientist. “The rich only get richer, tax avoidance and tax evasion have deepened. … We can’t get out of it because of the continuous bankrupting of (Greece) isn’t a solution.”

Budgets have been cut across the board in all sectors, including public universities, which received a mere 20% of their 2010 budgets, said Charalambis. For example, the University of Athens,with more than 65,000 students, employs a single full-time cleaner, which sometimes forces professors to clean toilets and empty trash bins. “The university is barely surviving,” he said.

Athens is full of similar examples that illustrate how public services are deteriorating, such as pot-hole laden streets, crumbling sidewalks and cars parked in places that block pedestrian crossings.

“The crisis drastically influenced the quality of my life,” said Gertsou, who is visually impaired and must walks with a dog and cane. “There is no pavement restoration work anymore, so my moving around the city is constantly getting more difficult.”

“There’s no one issuing tickets and there are very few police patrols,” Gertsou added. “This has created a chaotic situation in Athens and everyone does what they want.”

Making matters worse, Greece has struggled to cope as the main gateway for 1 million refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia who have fled to Europe over the past two years. Thousands of those migrants have been stuck in Greece because other European countries have closed their borders.

Despite the indifference expressed by Gertsou, Obama’s visit is symbolically important, Charalambis said.

“The visit is a signal to the EU (European Union), and especially to Germany, that Obama considers Greece an essential ally and that continuous austerity politics and the country’s marginalization can’t be in the spirit of a Western alliance, especially today with all the instability around our region,” he said.

Angela Maria Arbelaez, 47, who works with refugees, is one of 1,000 lucky Greeks who have been invited to attend the president’s speech.

“The visit of a U.S. president is a very important moment for Greece,” said Arbelaez. “We’re hoping to hear a message of solidarity that will help the country escape this economic deadlock. He could even call for investment into Greece.”