Greek 'island of the blind'? More like 'island of welfare cheats'
On a Greek island, at least 600 are suspected of falsely claiming to be blind to get disability money. It's part of the rampant fraud that prompted Athens to halt payments to 200,000 last week.
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"He was bragging about it around the island," the other taxi driver, who asked not to be identified, says. "It wasn't right but if someone offers you that money, you'd be silly not to take it."Skip to next paragraph
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'That guy is supposed to be blind!'
No one has been more angered by the whole saga than the island’s 40 or so genuinely blind people.
“What makes me really, really mad is that I am blind and these people are laughing in my face by taking disability allowances,” says John Venardos, who began to go blind a decade ago as a result of a genetic trait that runs in his family.
Mr. Venardos, who was raised in Canada and now does his best to run a family-owned hotel fronting one of Zakynthos’s beaches, says corruption was endemic in Greece.
“Everything is abused here. People think ‘why should my next door get false benefit payments and not me?’"
He said the scam had brought shame and embarrassment on Zakynthos, which lies south of Corfu and attracts hordes of package tourists during the summer.
“They are calling us ‘the island of the blind.’ When I go to Athens I’m afraid to say I’m from Zakynthos and walk down the street with a white stick because people will think I’m faking it.”
His 75-year-old father, Nikolaos Venardos, who is also suffering from the genetic disorder, says the scam started to come to light about a year ago.
“An islander went to the welfare office to pick up his blindness checks. A female staff member who was on a break saw him then take off his dark glasses, jump into a Porsche and drive away. She called the police and said ‘That guy is supposed to be blind!’ That’s how it all started.”
Change requires more than new laws
The scandal has only fueled Greeks’ cynicism towards a political and social system that has brought the country close to ruin.
“I feel very bitter towards our politicians,” says Nikolaos Plessas, sipping thick black coffee in his cafe in a village of pastel-coloured cottages on Zakynthos.
“They have a [darn] cheek to even run for election after what they’ve done. Hard-working people like me fund their extravagant lifestyles. I won’t be voting next month.”
The campaign being waged by the mayor on Zakynthos is a microcosm of the much bigger effort required by Greece’s politicians to curb fraud, corruption, tax evasion and other long-standing abuses in order to put the country’s economic house in order.
Many Greeks say that will require more than legislation – it requires an entire change of culture.
“The whole system is sick,” says Mr. Skiadopoulos, the businessman. “Everybody is corrupt in Greece – the lawyers, the doctors, the judicial system, police, customs – everybody. All of us are guilty, all of us are responsible for what has happened.
“We need to change our whole mentality. Our European partners need to come here and be aggressive in pushing us to change. If they still think we are the devil of Europe, then they must throw us out.”