Roughly 3,000 protesters took to the streets of Athens, Greece this week in anticipation of Barack Obama’s visit to the country.
The Telegraph reports that “Greek riot police used tear gas and stun grenades in central Athens on Tuesday” after protesters condemning Obama’s visit “tried to enter an area declared off-limits to demonstrators.”
“The violence broke out as youths in motorcycle helmets and gas masks, armed with wooden clubs and petrol bombs, tried to break a police cordon in front of a barrier formed by police buses.”
Obama’s visit came just days before an annual protest in the country to commemorate a 1973 student uprising that challenged a U.S.-backed military junta.
During that uprising on November 17, 1973, military tanks rolled toward Athens’ Polytechnic University and “the army, along with the police force, got into the main building of Polytechnio [and] beat and arrested whoever they bumped into. At that time many people were tortured and some were killed,” notes Marianthi Kotea, a professor of sociology at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences.
In 1999, then-president Bill Clinton visited Greece, where like Obama, was met with clashes between rioters and police. During that trip, Clinton acknowledged the United States’ role in empowering the junta, which retained control from 1967 to 1974. As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time:
“President Clinton acknowledged on Saturday the U.S. government’s support for the widely despised military junta that ruled Greece more than 25 years ago, but he stopped short of apologizing outright for Washington’s letting Cold War concerns obscure a moral obligation to oppose a dictatorship.”
“[T]he support that the American government gave to the regime of the colonels from 1967 to 1974 has shadowed U.S.-Greek relations ever since,” the Times noted.
Ironically, this week protesters took refuge from law enforcement at the Polytechnic University, where they engaged in “running street fights” with police. Many identify as left-wingers and anarchists and had originally planned to assemble outside the U.S. embassy but were blocked by law enforcement.
Greek authorities deployed 5,000 police to patrol Obama’s visit and ensure protesters were kept away from the American president as he met with Greek officials. Riot squads were “on high alert” after some protesters threw a hand grenade outside the French embassy, injuring a police guard. An additional 5,000 Communist protesters also took to the streets to protest, though they did not challenge police lines.
Protesters are not just commemorating the United States’ historical role in their political hardships. As the Telegraph explains, many are showing their disapproval of the United States current role in the country’s ongoing financial crises, which have caused widespread austerity measures.
The Greek government has faced crippling debt and has required three bailouts from international banks thus far. These bailouts have required lawmakers to raise taxes and slash welfare programs, moves that have prompted continual protests from Greeks.
As the Guardian has explained:
“The duration and depth of the recession is such that the World Bank now compares it to the slumps seen in eastern European countries in the early 1990s. The poorest 20% of Greece’s 11 million people have suffered a 42% drop in disposable income since 2009.”
The Popular Unity party took part in the main protests against Obama’s visit and to remember the 1973 uprising. Party leader Panayiotis Lafazanis highlighted America’s current role in the Greek crisis:
“American imperialism has not changed. The US presidents and administrations have played – and still play – a leading part in the bailout-linked plundering of our country … and their interventions are drowning our part of the world in blood and creating refugee waves.”
As the Guardian noted in 2011, “The US government has a direct and significant role in the Greek crisis because the US treasury department has the predominant voice in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).” The IMF, along with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB), has negotiated bailout and austerity terms with the Greek government.
When Germany cornered Greece last year, demanding further austerity and discouraging tax cuts for corporations and wealthier Greeks, the Obama administration chose to take a hands-off approach. Though Obama has stressed the need for compromise and advocated a loosening of austerity, he largely left Greeks to fend for themselves against European central banks and the IMF.
It appears the United States continues to incite resentment both for its current role in global financial unrest and its habit of propping up dictatorships in foreign countries. As the Telegraph reported:
“The small Popular Unity party … described Obama’s visit as ‘a provocation, much more as it comes during the commemoration of the heroic Polytechnic revolt, where the US-driven dictatorship squashed the students with tanks.“