Why are Greeks protesting President Obama's visit?

President Obama chose the birthplace of democracy as his last international visit. So why are Greek protestors filling the streets?

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
Greek riot policemen clash with protesters during a demonstration against the visit of President Obama, in Athens, Greece, on Nov. 15, 2016.

President Obama’s final foreign trip while in office was greeted with protests in multiple Greek cities on Tuesday.

Up to 3,000 left-wing protesters marched on the streets of Athens and were met by Greek riot police as they tried to enter off-limit areas. Another 5,000 Communist Party supporters peacefully protested in central Athens, while about 1,000 protested in Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki.

The protests occurred despite Mr. Obama's goal to help the debt-stricken country convince creditors to grant relief. Greece has been suffering from an economic crisis since 2009, and subsequent budget cuts have left nearly a third of the population in poverty and 1 in 4 out of work. The boiling frustration among the protesters stems from their view that the United States is responsible for the drastic austerity measures imposed on them as well as its interventions abroad that led to a massive wave of refugees swarming Greece. There is also a history of anti-American protests in the country that has seen various forms of intervention by the US. 

"American imperialism has not changed," Panayiotis Lafazanis, party leader of Popular Unity Party that took part in the protests, told the Associated Press on Tuesday. "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."

Obama is not the only US president to have received this form of welcome. In 1999, President Bill Clinton's visit was also greeted with clashes between anarchists and riot police.

The timing of the Obama's visit is also oddly ominous, occurring two days before the country’s main annual anti-American demonstrations that commemorate the bloody 1973 suppression by military authorities of a pro-democracy uprising. Left-wing Greeks still resent the US for its support of Greece’s military dictatorship in 1967.

Despite the protests, Obama arrived in Athens to offer an olive branch to the troubled country by pleading with creditors to grant the country debt relief. Support from the US could be strategic for Greece, which put debt-relief discussion on top of the agenda, as reported by Bloomberg.

Greece currently has a debt load at close to 180 percent of its GDP, the highest in Europe. Greeks have been hit with deep income cuts, tax hikes, welfare cuts, and other economic reforms as the country tries to pay off international loans.

"To the rest of Europe I will continue to emphasize our view that austerity alone cannot deliver prosperity." Obama said in a press conference after meeting with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, as reported by The Guardian. "Our argument has always been that when the economy contracts this fast, when unemployment is this high, that there also has to be a growth agenda to go with it and it is very difficult to imagine the kind of growth strategy that’s needed without some debt relief mechanism."

Left-wing protests are especially common in Greece, Nicole Itano, correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, and there is a culture of protest in Greece as they have a "skeptical view of authority." Athens, after all, is "considered the birthplace of democracy," and it is a "hotbed of protest."

"On any given day, some group – doctors, students, peaceniks, garbage men, prostitutes, and even nuns – is walking off jobs or taking to the streets," Ms. Itano wrote.

During a state dinner hosted by President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in the ballroom of the presidential mansion in central Athens, Obama stressed the ties of friendship in a brief speech saying the two countries had "stood in solidarity in war and in peace, in good times and in bad, including in these very difficult years for the Greek people."  

Obama travels to Berlin on Wednesday, and Lima, Peru, on Friday. He’s expected to return to Washington, D.C., on Sunday.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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