Impoverished Greeks fearful as default deadline looms

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras held an emergency meeting with his bailout negotiators after a weekend breakdown in talks with creditors brought the country closer to bankruptcy. Many in Greece are bracing for more turmoil as they wonder whether the new government can avoid a default at the end of the month. NewsHour special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Athens.

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    Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras held an emergency meeting today with his bailout negotiators, after a weekend breakdown in talks with creditors brought the country closer to bankruptcy.

    Tsipras and his Syriza Party's strong anti-austerity platform were championed by the European left after winning snap elections in January. Today, however, many in Greece are bracing for more turmoil as they wonder whether the new government can avoid a default at the end of the month.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Athens.


    One of the largest demonstrations seen in years sent a clear message to the Greek government, the IMF and the European Union: We can't take anymore.

    This dash for a free meal in Central Athens epitomizes Greek pain and illustrates why the left-wing government of the Syriza Party is discrediting its creditors' demands to cut pensions further.

    The soup kitchen organized by a Greek American from an evangelical church was originally intended to help migrants from the developing world. But now many of its customers are Greeks who have plunged beneath the poverty line in a country whose safety net has rotted away and perished.

    THEMIS SIRINIDES, Second Evangelical Church of Athens: Many don't know where they are going to get their next meal, if they will be evicted, so there's fear in their lives. And now with a 30, 40 percent slash in those pensions, many of the people cannot make it through the whole month.

    So what we have soon an increase in is elderly people who, by the 15th, 18th, 20th of the month, have run out of money and they actually need this food.


    Dimitris Barbas, who is 73 year old, is one of the most impoverished clients of the Second Evangelical Church of Athens.

  • DIMITRIS BARBAS, Greece (through translator):

    There isn't a crisis. There's still a lot of money about. And there are people who take this money and leave others without. The crisis is for the poor.


    It's no exaggeration to say that this free clinic is the difference between life and death for the children of Perama, an Athenian district ravaged by unemployment. The charity helps the poorest. But with limited resources and facilities, it can only provide minimal care.

    ELENI CHRONOPOULOU, Doctors of the World: In some cases, we have to face the difficult situations, because we can't take care of them here. They need to go to hospital. And that's a big problem for the families, because they can't afford even the bus ticket to go to a public hospital.


    Free medicine is essential for Nikolos Farmelos, who fell behind with his social security contributions and has no state pension as a result.

  • NIKOLOS FARMELOS, Former Timber Yard Owner (through translator):

    Things were going badly. I had a timber yard with 30 employees. The factory closed. I went to prison because of debt, and I owe money to the social security fund.


    He may be immaculately dressed and imbued with Greek entrepreneurial spirit, but George Zissimatos is no longer a success. Staring at what used to be his shop in a prime location is intensely painful.

  • GEORGE ZISSIMATOS, Business Owner:

    It's a life disaster, the things you cannot build again. It's looking at your fortune get — getting lost.


    Before the crisis, Zissimatos had 13 shops, employing 49 people with an annual turnover of $5.5 million. The lack of cash circulating has forced him down to one store in a side street. He could still go to jail and lose his home over tax debts.


    If this business collapses, there is no day after. It is finished, because, in Greece, we don't have a nice second chance. The private sector is almost dying. We cannot find sources and liquidity. We cannot find products. So we have to do something. And we need time. And we need time to breathe.


    But time is running out. Greece has been teetering on the brink of total disaster for the past five years, and it's rapidly approaching the most important deadline of all. If it can't pay $1.8 billion to the International Monetary Fund by the end of the month, the country will be declared officially bankrupt.

    Yanis Varoufakis controls the national purse that is virtually empty. The Greek finance minister has infuriated international creditors by abrasively refusing to succumb to their demands.

  • YANIS VAROUFAKIS, Greek Finance Minister:

    For five years now, the international community and the Greek people in particular have had enough of the Greek crisis.

    There have been extensions of the problem. We have been extending and pretending, extending the problem and pretending we solved it. And it's about time that we had one agreement which is comprehensive, which compromises of three aspects, firstly, serious reforms, secondly, a serious debt management program or debt restructuring program, and, thirdly, an investment package, so that the Greek crisis goes away.


    There are some in Greece, however, who think the new government is overplaying its hand. The previous conservative administration was much more conciliatory with the country's creditors.

    In late 2014, Athens posted modest positive GDP numbers. The former prime minister, Antonis Samaras, is damning about the Syriza government's negotiating tactics.

  • ANTONIS SAMARAS, Former Greek Prime Minister (through translator):

    The government promised a better deal to the Greek people while staying within the euro, but, instead, it looks like they're bringing a worse deal with another new bailout or even bankruptcy.

    It promised that it would receive financial aid without a bailout, and it ended up extending the bailout without getting any money.


    Meanwhile, the criticism on the left towards the Syriza government has been public and confrontational. Communists, trade unionists occupied the Finance Ministry a few days ago and unfurled recalled a banner which read: "We have bled enough. We have paid enough."

    At another building occupation by former state employees there was anger that the new government has refused to rehire them and is sticking with international demands.

  • ANTHEA TSEKOURA, Unemployed:

    I had some hopes and I vote — to be honest with you, I vote that party because I believed in that party. And that party gave us away like a litter — like a trust or something. And that was our problem. We lost our faith.


    On one of Athens main shopping streets, this shuttered mall is a cathedral to austerity.

    So, will Greece have to return to the drachma, the world's oldest currency?

    Jens Bastian, a German economist, spent two years with the European Union task force, helping to recapitalize Greek banks in the early days of the crisis.

  • JENS BASTIAN, Economist:

    I don't entertain the option that Greece will leave the euro. There are voices, and they're gaining in strength, that advocate such an option. But it would be catastrophic for the banking sector, for the private households and businesses who are indebted in euro. In many ways, this is a nonstarter.


    After five years of the Greek economy enduring descaling, billeting and never-ending cuts, the traders at Athens' fish market are desperate for relief.


    The people are very afraid about their money, so they're very tight. And they're afraid to buy also food. If they don't pay us, we cannot pay other people. It take the supplies. There's no money left for — for living. We're just working and pay. We're just transporting the money.


    The protesters' demands for resistance to the international creditors seem to outweigh recognition that, unless Greece agrees to additional measures, it will not be able to access more than $8 billion from the bailout program to keep the country afloat and limit the continued flight of its youngest and finest.


    I fear how I will find a job, how difficult that would be, if there is a future here in Greece, because I want to stay. I mean, Greece, it is my hometown, my home country. I love it here. I want to stay. But I'm fearful of that.


    As Greece marches towards the abyss, the wise heads of the ancients are needed more than ever.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

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