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Bob Moon: When it comes to the world’s financial future, Greece has been called “the canary in the coalmine.” Or, as its prime minister put it recently, “the guinea pig.” Greece is the first developed country to embark on a major program of deficit reduction. Not by choice, mind you. Financial markets and pressure from fellow eurozone members are forcing the country to make deep cuts in public spending. And the process is not going smoothly.
Today labor unions called their second nationwide strike this month to protest the austerity measures. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from Athens.
STEPHEN BEARD: Tens of thousands marched through the center of Athens in protest against the pay cuts and the higher taxes. Many of the marchers said they were the victims of global, financial shenanigans.
PROTESTOR: Myself, I feel humiliated by the international attacks against us. It’s not fair.
PROTESTOR: It is not us who created the crisis. And we don’t have to be the ones whopay it. To lower our salaries. To attack our working rights.
Some 30,000 protesters marched. But a further two million people may have joined the strike — teachers, nurses, train drivers. Athens ground to a halt. Even the glories of ancient Greece were affected.
GUIDE: This is the Parthenon. The most remarkable temple of the Greek western civilization…
This guide was showing the last visitors around the Acropolis before it closed for today’s action. Even the archaeologists downed their trowels and walked off excavations.
Despina Koutsoumba says the pay and job cuts are endangering her profession and are economically damaging, too.
DESPINA KOUTSOUMBA: If the government stops hiring people for the Ministry of Culture we won’t be able to do our job. And our job is something that brings money to Greece through tourism.
But the government is under huge pressure to cut its spending. Greece has got to get its house in order, says Gikas Hardouvelis, chief economist at Greece’s second biggest bank.
GIKAS HARDOUVELIS: Economists love this situation where finally the politicians are with their backs on the wall, and they have to do the right thing.
And that, he says is to end the years of deceit about the scale of the budget deficit, cut the bloated public sector and stop widespread tax evasion. Hardouvelis reckons Greece can deliver.
HARDOUVELIS: The Europeans are after Greece to make sure they bring down their deficit. The markets are penalizing Greece. So there is no way out. We’ve got to do it.
On the lively streets of the city, well away from the route of the protest march, many Athenians seem to agree. Opinion surveys show that 66 percent back the government cuts. Many seem fed up with the strikes. But that still leaves two million strikers apparently in militant mood.
And that includes archaeologist Despina Koutsoumba.
DESPINA KOUTSOUMBA: Our banks had 3 billion euros of profit in 2009, in the middle of the crisis, and they ask me to reduce my salary? Never.
And that is a archaeologist digging in her heels and drawing on her knowledge of Greek history.
KOUTSOUMBA: It’s a history of struggles, it’s a history of wars.
BEARD: Crisis is a Greek word, isn’t it?
KOUTSOUMBA: Yes, crisis is a Greek word. Yeah.
And so is chaos. Today’s mostly peaceful protest descended, at one point, into violence and vandalism. More strikes and rallies are planned. Greece’s deficit reduction is unlikely to be an orderly process.
In Athens, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.
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