“Is Kenya Africa’s Greece?” a newspaper poster in South Africa asked a few days ago in a photo on Twitter that caused a stir in Greece. Kenya is finding it difficult to pay its state employees, raising questions about the state of its finances. A couple of days later, Paulo Tafner, an economist and authority on Brazil’s pension system, described his country’s problems to the New York Times in this way: “Think Greece but on a crazier, more colossal scale.” Greece has become synonymous with a country that cannot meet its obligations. It has become a unit of measure. Like Richter, decibels, kilos…
Our prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, boasts that his government made the Greek problem an international issue. He may believe that the resistance he put up against our creditors for several months gained the international public’s sympathy – and, up to a point, he is right – but our country’s international image is not his achievement alone. Greece became a symbol because of decades of mismanagement, waste and populism. The SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition inherited these problems but it differed from previous governments in that it made no effort to correct Greece’s failings; instead, it presented them as virtues that could be maintained and imposed on those who lend us money. This effort resulted in resounding defeat and has not won any admirers. Even SYRIZA’s Spanish brethren, Podemos, are trying to persuade their compatriots that they are very different from the Greeks.
It is sad and humiliating to see Greece being used as a symbol of failure. After having inherited so much, it is a heavy burden to be known chiefly for an inability to manage the present. But the very fact that our country is a unit for measuring failure reveals the only comforting fact in this sorry tale: Obviously we are not the only country to screw up so badly. The problems that we face challenge other countries, too, whether in Europe or Africa or South America, whether they are small and poor or emerging giants.
Mismanagement, waste, corruption and supporting specific groups at the expense of the general public are not exclusively Greek phenomena. Our problem here is that we allowed them to grow without any serious effort to control them. For decades. Like investors thrilled by bubbles, we were seduced.
We forgot that what goes up comes down. And when we crashed and needed help we still behaved as if we did not need a radical change of mentality. It was as if we did not want to save ourselves.
Perhaps now that we have become an example to be avoided, we will see that we have to work together toward national rehabilitation. We can no longer kid ourselves or others, nor can we believe that the world owes us because of our heritage. From a symbol of collapse we have to make our country a symbol of revival. This demands creativity and industriousness. We must find a way to set these virtues free.