George Koufasimis knelt Sunday with his head bowed in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Sacramento and prayed for his many cousins in Greece struggling with the bare necessities as the world’s oldest democracy teeters on economic collapse.
The 72-year-old property manager said he’s returning Tuesday to his ancestral home in central Greece, the 250-person village of Koupaki, with plenty of cash, because Greek banks have been closed for nearly two weeks. The immigrant, who arrived here 48 years ago, goes back every summer to the house he’s remodeled – but this time he’s not sure what he’s going to find.
“My cousins are very worried – they cannot get their pensions without a bank card, and can only draw 60 euros a day, $68,” Koufasimis said. “Some people already did pull their money out so they could have a stash to survive, or have taken their money out of the country.”
Sacramento’s 12,000-member Greek community – which includes some of the most influential Greek Americans in the world – is closely watching the troubled country’s daily struggles as banks have closed, stores are running out of food and people are terrified of losing everything if the country sinks further into economic chaos.
People wonder whether the rest of Europe will agree to restructure some of Greece’s multibillion-dollar debt to international lenders, or impose sales taxes of 24 percent or more and other deeply unpopular economic austerity measures.
In Brussels this weekend, 28 European countries were debating the price of keeping Greece in the euro zone, or the European Economic Union. But Koufasimis and other local Greek Americans are divided over whether Greece should submit to the tax increases and austerity measures, or make what’s being called the “Grexit” from the EU and the euro as a unit of currency, which would likely mean returning to the drachma.
Koufasimis said the majority of older Greeks, whose life savings are on the line, voted to stay in the EU even if the price was high, “while most of the young people who don’t have jobs voted no.”
Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, one of the most powerful developers and best-known philanthropists in Northern California, said the EU was giving Greece an impossible choice.
He described the EU position as: “We will either put a bullet in your head right now (by kicking Greece out) or we will put you in prison and see where that goes.”
Greece did “overborrow, they did overspend, but so did many, many individuals, families, states, cities and countries,” Tsakopoulos said. “The question is, how do we get out of it?”
The future of not just Greece, but the United States, hangs in the balance, said Tsakopoulos, calling the country’s future the key to security cooperation in the region and the stability of the world’s economy. That view was shared by developer Phil Angelides, the former California state treasurer who led the National Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission into the U.S. financial meltdown of 2008.
“Greece has been one of our greatest and most dependable allies through two world wars and is at the front lines of NATO’s Western democratic alliance,” said Angelides, who’s also a Sacramento resident.
Now suffering through the equivalent of America’s Great Depression – with 27 percent unemployment, including 60 percent among youths – Greece could prove unable to aid in the multination fight against Islamic State in nearby Syria, Angelides said. Greece is already home to 77,000 new migrants, mostly Syrians, who arrived by boat, and that has fueled the rise of the anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party to the third most powerful in the polls.
Angelides said his first cousins in Greece are “terrified they will lose their life savings if the banks collapse. ... I have a friend whose elderly parents are worried sick they won’t be able to afford medicine.”
Tourism, which constitutes about 20 percent of the Greek economy, has “dropped off drastically – tourists are skeptical, and worried they might get stuck with no money on the Aegean islands,” Koufasimis said.
Supermarkets are running low on food because Greece imports 60 percent of its goods, Koufasimis said.
Still, people in villages such as his can grow their own produce and chickens. “The people in Athens,” he said, “don’t have that chance.”