Europe Really is Different than the United States

in line for donations in Athens by Crete farmers

Thessaloniki   The point is so obvious that it almost seems trivial.  Of course, Europe is different from the United States and every country within the European Union is also different from the others in history, culture, and often language.  No visitor fails to remark about the feeling in Europe of walking in ancient footsteps. Walking by a Greek column that is not a replica but an artifact is as common as remnants of construction during this Roman emperor or another.

Yet, the differences I notice are so much more than that the longer I stay and the more I travel.  If the wealth of an England or France seems eye to eye with the United States, Greece seems more like Mexico or even Paraguay.  Here people grudgingly say that the economy is slightly improving, but still talk of “the crisis” in Greece as the daily occurrence that they still feel everywhere.  University professors’ shop at the co-op store, not just because of a political persuasion but also because with their salaries have been cut to shreds, it is what they can afford.  Students who once enjoyed free education are now having to cobble together money to stay in school.  A sign in the men’s washroom, written in English, said perhaps too much about the situation, as the letters shouted “We Need Toilet Paper!”

The social welfare system is an entitlement for the unemployed in a way that US workers would find unimaginable.  Talking by Skype last week to a young man in Frankfurt, Germany about organizing a tenants’ union there, it was not a surprise that he was on public assistance while he tried to pull these pieces together.  For students the same is true and reduces the panic of joblessness and opens the door to opportunity to find a place whether in Greece or Scotland or France.

The political diversity of multi-party experience may seem fractured, but is actually invigorating.  Casual introductions that include the fact that so-and-so was a former Communist city councilman or that this one or that were key activists in the anarchist community or that this tavern owner or landlord or even neighborhood were well-known as anarchist strongholds.  In the United States such a comment would seem extraordinary, possibly subversive, and the subject of a special feature on Fox News, but in Greece it is so commonplace that it hardly bears mentioning.  Politics of almost all persuasions seems mainstream rather than marginal.  In a multi-party politics rather than a two-party system one has to cultivate a certain tolerance because it is impossible to predict where the party slightly left or right might end up your coalition partner in government or opposition.  The choices can both make or break politicians and parties, raising some up, and destroying others.

The nuances are almost impossible for a stranger visiting from afar, as I am, to navigate without constant guides who prove their worth by the paths they point both away from trouble and to the company of friends.  Being accused of having an “American perspective” is an insult and a caution.  Listening and watching for the clues is constant, because the lessons are everywhere and the learning curve is steep.  To assume something is the same in Europe as in America is a guarantee of falling over the cliff.

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The Way Governments Chill the Lives of Their People

San Pedro Sula   Driving through the cities of Honduras, there are stretches that seem like fast food heaven for global companies.  It’s hard to know what to make of the many complexes that include Popeye’s, Dunkin Donuts, Subways, and Pizza Hut under the same roof virtually.  Traffic is heavy and unregulated.  Passing on the highways is random and reckless without regard to any road signage.  In short, life in the years since the coup or golpista looks and feels normal.

Talking to people in all walks of life though the new normal post-golpista reality is living in a world with a thundercloud always hovering in the sky above.

Because some radio and television stations were shutdown because they expressed opposition in the coup or allowed contrary voices and opinions to be expressed, one reporter or station owner after another told us what they did not allow on the air.  One mainly broadcast religious programming in Nicaragua because of the government there and had largely shifted that way in Honduras as well after the coup. Journalists would turn off their tape recorders or put the pen down on their pad after talking with us and then describe their interest in finding outlets for their writing outside of the country for fear that another shutdown of papers and journals expressing anything but fawning support of the government could come in the future.

Nothing any of these people had said was out of line or critical.  No new laws were cited that expressly forbade what they could broadcast or print, but everyone seemed to be internalizing the experience of the coup as a permanent warning light instructing caution, drawing lines that should not be safely crossed, things that could not be said.  Talking to lawyers who offered ACORN help in various ways there was always a warning that more care needed to be taken on all documents, because the government was hyper attentive to any nonprofit organizations with international connections.  This is what is meant when people talk about governments chilling the rights of their citizens.

One of our organizers told us a story about going with several leaders to respond to interest in organizing in a new barrio in one of our cities.  They were suddenly confronted by several individuals in police uniforms with guns drawn and pointed at them telling them they had to leave the neighborhood.  Because gangs have regularly infiltrated the police ranks and many have simply obtained uniforms for their work, organizers are unsure if they are dealing with police or worse.  In this case they kept talking so nothing got out of hand, but they kept talking while leaving the neighborhood.  Because the government cannot protect the people and seems to have little interest in doing so, despite the fact that security is on everyone’s minds, we don’t articulate security as an issue, because we never know in our own meetings whether there may be gang members or relatives, so the issues have to be framed carefully.

To say nothing is as it seems ignores the screams masked by the silence shrouded in the fear of a people unsure of their place between a government that does not protect their rights or their safety and real experiences of violence from both the government forces and the forces of even worse evil.

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