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Greek debt crisis challenges Tampa's consul

Antonios Sgouropoulos arrived in Tampa 10 months ago, tapped to run the Greek Consulate General here, one of just six in the United States.

Three months later, the Greek debt crisis imploded.

Sgouropoulos has been on damage control ever since. Lobbying with limited success to persuade Floridians of Greek heritage to donate money for their troubled homeland; slashing his own budget up to 40 percent; and defending fiscal "austerity measures" the Greek government has taken to keep the country solvent.

"It was quite a full and interesting year," the 47-year-old diplomat says in a very diplomatic tone.

In his foreign service career, Sgouropoulos has moved around the world, including time assigned to Romania and Serbia. He ended a six-year stint as a member of the Greek mission to the United Nations in 2001, leaving New York City two weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He recently talked with the St. Petersburg Times about Greece's economic woes, running the Consulate General as a budget-challenged business and why he believes rising debt won't push the American economy down the same troublesome path as Greece.

Even after Greece's nearly trillion-dollar bailout across Europe, Moody's Investors Service this month downgraded the country's debt from A3 to Ba1 — junk bonds. Do you think the bailout is working?

This is one of the most pronounced recessions of the world's economies since the '30s. The European unit is gradually recovering, but it's still facing headwinds.

We have received the first transfer of $110 billion (in bailout funds). Our government is determined to implement fully the (recovery) program. Our country will be able to overcome the difficulties it is currently facing and enter a path of sustainable growth. Both the government and the citizens of Greece feel … the burden of historical responsibility, and they are determined to do what is necessary to take greed out of the system.

Has the government's financial crackdown with higher taxes and wage cuts been too harsh?

Sometimes we have to change our easy way of life. We have to understand that we have to make sacrifices for our children and grandchildren. After the '80s, Greece was living a life which was not reflecting its real economic situation. Everyone was asking for loans to buy cars, even to go on vacations. We had very high expectations for a very high standard of life, which probably led us to these problems. So now we have to learn how to live with less. It's as simple as that. We don't have any choice.

Protesters say there is another way.

Little by little, the prime minister is getting to them. In order to put the country on the right track, we have to make some unpleasant situations, but no one will force us not to follow our program. Eventually, they will realize there is only one direction.

How has your office in Tampa been impacted by budget cuts?

We cut 20 percent of our salaries and around 30 to 40 percent of our maintenance budget. Two years from now, because the current contract is very high, I would like to find a new location for our office.

In Greece, they are considering cutting some of the representatives in the United States and all over the world. There are thoughts to closing the consulates in Houston and Atlanta. It's talk right now.

But the Tampa Consulate General wouldn't close?

I don't think so. No. We have a huge number of Greeks here.

Many think of Tarpon Springs as the center of our Greek community. How big of a presence is there statewide?

According to the census for 2000, there were nearly 80,000 people of Greek origin in Florida. I know some Greeks think the number is closer to 160,000. In Tampa it must be around 40,000.

How is the local community reacting to the European turmoil?

They love their country, (but) there is a feeling that, "We're not going to pay for the mistakes that the Greeks have made from the illogical spending."

Some people think … that it was a kind of punishment. They are not ready to give from their own pockets, and I understand that.

What fiscal lessons should Americans draw from Greece's experience?

I don't think we are in a position to give lessons. I don't think you're following the same wrong direction of overspending, of hiring and creating a monster in the public sector.

The citizens here have a strong belief in the state and federal government. You'd never doubt the institution. In Greece, we have this innate thing — whenever the government decides something, we have second thoughts. There is no confidence or a very small percentage of confidence.

The United States is facing a large anti-incumbent push and the Tea Party movement has grown. Don't many here share that same mistrust of government?

I don't see it. … It's not the same. You have huge potential and huge resources and you'll never be in a situation like (Greece). We're not producing anything. We have tourism and shipping. So we have to focus on investments, on attracting foreign capital into our country.

Greek debt crisis challenges Tampa's consul 06/27/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 28, 2010 1:18pm]
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