On a typically humid summer day, Greek ambassador Christos Panagopoulos welcomed his guests for a salon performance of Opera Camerata of Washington at the Fairfax Embassy Row hotel. “I would have loved to host you at my residence across the street,” he said, “but, like the economy of my country, it is under reconstruction.”
The American-educated ambassador was putting on a brave face. Renovations on the 1906 Beaux-Arts building, the most impressive of the four that Greece owns around Sheridan Park, have been a low priority for his government given the country’s strained finances. The building has been closed for three years.
The only hope for its revival anytime soon may be the Greek American community. As the country’s reputation suffered in the crisis, many were initially slow to support the land of their ancestors, but they are rallying now. They’ve embraced crowd-funding campaigns, sold T-shirts to promote Greek tourism and have even enlisted former president Bill Clinton to attract investment in the country.
Greece could use a boost. Its economy is in its sixth year of recession, having lost 25 percent of its GDP since 2009. Unemployment has spiked to 27.6 percent, shunting more than one in five Greeks under the poverty line of just $8,588 per year. Among the young, that number approaches a staggering 65 percent.
These days, any request for new public spending comes under the scrutiny of a tough austerity program that has slashed pensions and salaries. It has stretched thin the provision of even basic public services like emergency medical care, public schools and the police. Embassy renovations are way down the list.
This government is not sprucing up places, it is selling assets — the Greek consulate in London sold for $36.5 million this year — to bring down its fiscal deficit, as demanded by its international lenders in return for massive loans from the IMF and the European Union.
Valued at $10 million, the 35-room mansion, a work of famed local architect George Oakley Totten, was donated to the war-torn country after World War II by William Helis. A Greek who immigrated to the United States in 1904 with $22 in his pocket, Helis moved to Louisiana, worked in the oil industry and was soon among the nation’s wealthiest Greeks.
There have been countless such stories since. From the arts and letters to politics and business, Greeks have thrived here.
Today, the 3 million Americans of Greek descent are mostly third-generation who long ago assimilated into the economy. By comparison, fewer than 11 million people live in Greece. The fortune of the 50 richest is an estimated $35 billion to $50 billion. The Greek GDP in 2012 was $250 billion.
Despite their strong emotional connection and family bonds, however, the contribution of Greek Americans to their motherland in the first years of its financial crisis has been less obvious than their numbers or wealth would suggest. Daunted by demonstrations and strikes, Greek Americans wouldn’t even go on holiday to Greece, let alone invest there.
For the average hard-working, middle-class Greek American who worked to make it in the United States, the constant media portrayal of Greeks as lazy, profligate and corrupt was a lot to stomach.
“You have to remember, Greek Americans have been through a lot in America, too. There was a time in this country’s history when it was not acceptable to be anything but white Anglo-Saxon,” said Basil Mossaidis, the executive director of AHEPA, the biggest association of Greek Americans in the world, which has an office in Dupont Circle. “You couldn’t be an immigrant. You couldn’t be an African American. You couldn’t be a Greek. There was a lot of prejudice.”
In 2010, Greece was indeed singled out. When the Greek deficit for 2009 was revealed to be double the previous estimate, Greece was swiftly shut out of the financial markets. For months, it struggled to avoid a default on its debt, one of the largest — as percentage of GDP — in the world. Its calamity threatened to bring down the euro zone and destabilize a global economy still weakened by the financial crisis.
By 2011, the crisis had spread across the continent to engulf Ireland and Portugal, which were also forced to request international bailouts. It gradually became obvious that the reasons for the crisis also had to do with the incomplete structure of the euro zone and inefficiencies shared among many southern European economies.
The Europeans were “using Greece as a scapegoat,” Mossaidis said. “This problem of the European Union is not a problem of Greece, it’s everybody’s problem.”
As the Greeks went on to make painful sacrifices that resonated even overseas, Greek Americans are finally ready to go home. The fastest, most direct form of relief is tourism. “Everybody should go to Greece and be, you know, a tourist!” Mossaidis said. “Spend your money and help the economy by investing or spending on hotels, buying things and so on.”
Tourism is the biggest industry in Greece, accounting for 15 percent of its economy. The unrest scared people away; tourist arrivals and revenue dropped. This summer, as the protests waned and the danger of a euro exit faded, it was time to reopen the floodgates.
Instability in other destinations in the eastern Mediterranean also redirected tourists to Greece. In a recent meeting with the editorial board of The Washington Post, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said that a record-breaking 19 million tourists were expected this year — “a rain of liquidity in a dehydrated soil,” as he put it.
“If I were the prime minister and I met with Obama, I’d tell him, ‘Look, I need you to come to Greece and stay there for a week,’ ” to show to the world that “Greece is a safe, friendly and attractive destination, Mossaidis said. “The same goes with Putin. If I was in charge of the tourism bureau, I would be insisting that my prime minister invite all the foreign dignitaries to come to my country to show how important Greece is to them, because it makes the Greeks feel good, and it makes the rest of the world know that Greece is okay.”
George Aggelis, for one, is persuaded. On a slow night at Cava Mezze, his Greek restaurant in Eastern Market, the 30-something was missing the summers of his childhood. “I haven’t been to Greece in 13 years,” he said. “I was hoping to go this summer. I wasn’t able to.” His attention turned to customers at the door. “But I’ll save more money and go next year, spend it all in Greece!”
Art Dimopoulos, a first-generation American who is executive director of the National Hellenic Society, an organization that aims to reconnect a younger generation of Greek-Americans with their Greek identity, also led a crowdsourcing campaign in the District that funded an advertisement for Greek tourism.
UpGreekTourism was the first billboard campaign of its kind in Washington, as Greek expats and Greek Americans raised more than $10,000 to rent a wall-scape near the Verizon Center for 30 days. Their message — an invitation to visit Greece — reached an estimated 2.5 million people. Similar campaigns took place in Times Square in New York and London’s Piccadilly Circus. In Washington, the Greek American owners of the wall-scape building ran the campaign again in May, this time for free.
The “cool factor” of the advertisements, a series of mosaics depicting landmarks and symbols of Greece, was high. Made up of pictures of people who supported the campaign, they were created pro bono by Charis Tsevis, a Greek American artist famous for his mosaics of iconic athletes, businesspeople and politicians, including President Obama and Steve Jobs.
This year even the American Hellenic Initiative, which focuses on foreign policy issues, printed T-shirts with a message to support Greek tourism: “This American is going home . . . to Greece.”
Greece doesn’t have money to pour into advertising campaigns. It is, however, working online with Travelocity, TripAdvisor and Expedia to “remind the American audience of the unique experience of having holidays in Greece,” said Panos Livadas, a Greek tourism official.
Another thing that would help: more flights and better connections. Last winter, there was no direct flight to Athens from any U.S. destination.
More than sending tourists its way, steering investment money to the country is critical. During a U.S. visit this summer, Samaras met with some powerful Greek American executives, including Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical. Liveris is also one of the founders of the Hellenic Initiative, an effort to bring investment to Greece.
On Thursday its founders hosted an inaugural banquet featuring Clinton. In a motivational address to the who-is-who of the Greek-American community, Clinton praised Samaras for his struggle to steer Greece out of the crisis. He also warned against the effects of austerity, arguing that “it is time to feed the hope” of the Greeks with deeds.
Clinton’s engagement goes back to 2010, when the former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, trying to avoid a default, met with 20 prominent Greek American businessmen.
Andy Manatos, the president of the influential, Washington-based lobbying firm Manatos & Manatos and a former assistant secretary of Commerce in the Carter administration, remembers running into Clinton in the lobby of a Ritz-Carlton hotel. There, Clinton told him that he would be glad to help if there was anything he could do “to bring Greek Americans together for Greece.”
Back then, some of the wealthiest Greek Americans were ready to offer “tens of millions of dollars” to support Greece, Manatos says. At the time, the government said that its problems were so great, it could only consider initiatives that brought at least half a billion dollars. Three years later, the same nucleus of businesspeople decided the best way for them to support Greece is to help it grow.
“Recovery requires investment,” said Myles Presler, the Hellenic Initiative’s interim CEO. He noted that the initiative’s aim is to channel external support “in a way that it can have the biggest impact fastest.” This means setting up a $100 million private-equity investment fund for small and midsize businesses frozen out of the capital markets.
Presler expects that the fund will be ready to start making investments by next year, with an emphasis on creating jobs but also investor returns. They are seeking investment from wealthy Greeks, corporate investors “like Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola, who are represented on our board, but also other Fortune 500 companies who have a vested interest in the future of Greece” and institutional investors, he said.
In an effort to boost the transition to an economy that is more dynamic and competitive, the Hellenic Initiative is also awarding financing grants to start-ups. At Thursday’s gala, they announced plans to provide technical support and advice to Greek exporters.
As for the banquet, it will support philanthropic initiatives, having raised more than $1.9 million. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation also announced a $100 million fund “to recharge” the young people of Greece tarnished by “unacceptably” high unemployment. Presler described an “overwhelming outpouring of support.”
Still, many of the Greek Americans supporting the initiative have been burned by a notorious bureaucracy in past efforts to invest in Greece, Manatos said.
In the case of the Hellenic Initiative, previous concerns of red tape and corruption are being set aside as “this is not a government program, but a private investment vehicle that invests directly in businesses,” Presler said.
Samaras has also courted the investment community of New York, where Notis Mitarachi, his deputy minister for development, organized meetings with fund managers, hedge funds and private equity funds managing assets of $650 billion. Samaras invited them to invest in Greece, especially in energy, tourism, agribusiness, finance and infrastructure.
Dimopoulos recognizes that the government has taken strides to “do business like Americans,” but he notes that these things “don’t happen overnight.”
It is amid all these initiatives that the Greek ambassador is talking to a few of its wealthiest members about sponsoring the restoration work at his residence.
For foreign diplomats, the task of promoting their country can be challenging, sophisticated and costly. Next door, the ambassador of Turkey has been using another building by Totten to promote Turkish interests. He is wowing his guests with jazz nights at an impressive music room with high ceilings, plush tapestries and Oriental carpets. Built after Totten’s stint as the “private architect to the sultan” in Istanbul, the place resembles an Ottoman palace.
Greece sorely needs to stage a charm offensive of its own. For now, it draws on any resources available, including all the support it can get from the Greek American community — cultural, financial or merely psychological.
Sometimes the three happily coincide, as was the case on the night of the Opera Camerata performance at the Fairfax Hotel: The performance featured a famed Greek American soprano, Anastasia Jamieson, and was partially funded by the Onassis Foundation. It even succeeded in lifting the spirits of the ambassador, who declared that “next year, I hope to be hosting you at my residence.”