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What A Beautiful Island And Blind Taxi Driver Say About Greek Hopes For Survival

With its blue waters and soft breezes, the island of Zante is the essence of a Greek paradise. It turns out it was also home to widespread scams of state benefits that help explain what is so deeply broken in modern Greece.

On Zante, seeing is believing (Anna Oates)
On Zante, seeing is believing (Anna Oates)
Benoît Vitkine

ZANTE - "But why do you want to talk about this? You should write about tourism instead!"

We've heard this one before, but Zante Island, with its 40,000 inhabitants and 500,000 summer visitors, indeed deserves the praise: the Ionian sea water is sometimes turquoise and sometimes deep blue, lined with fine-sand beaches and majestic cliffs. In the flowering mountain villages time follows the rhythm of men's conversations as they sip iced coffee. Fish restaurants on the waterfront, bell tower shadows stretching over stone houses, the Insomnia or Bad Boy clubs open all night to the delight of English and Russian tourists…

That's the post card. This winter, this island the Venetians dubbed "the Flower of the East" acquired a new, equally exotic nickname: "The Island of the Blind." On Mar. 19, Stelios Bozikis, the mayor of Zakynthos (Zante in Greek) convened television crews to confirm that the island was under investigation from the Greek Health Ministry. The reason was the abnormally high number of blind and visually impaired people: 682 people were receiving up to 325 euros in government benefits. Each. According to the World Health Organization, that's nine times the average in developed countries.

"I discovered this anomaly at the start of 2011, when the responsibility to distribute the benefits shifted from the prefecture to the town hall," says Mayor Bozikis. "I wrote to Athens, but in the central administration they were dragging their feet. I was afraid that they wanted to bury the story, so I made it public."

Keeping the silence

Who knew? Who were the blind people? In Zakynthos, restaurant owners shrug their shoulders; shopkeepers urge you to ponder instead the mores of the turtles that are famous on the island; and the old people holding their rosaries in the port are indignant that everybody - both "real" and "fake" blind people - was sent to the continent to take new eye exams.

The Island of the Blind seems to have become mute, and those most directly concerned have somehow all disappeared. "The people here were taken aback by the way all of Greece pointed its finger at them," says Spiros Betsis, a local television journalist. "We all felt collectively punished."

The control tests ordered by the Health Ministry yielded their results at the end of June, and only fifty or so blind and visually impaired people will get their benefits back. The others will have to pay back past benefits, and risk going to prison. The legal investigation and the testimonies paint the picture of a smoothly running operation that has probably been in place since 1998.

To get the benefits, the claimant had to obtain two stamps: one from the island's only ophthalmologist, who worked at the public hospital, and one from the prefect, who has an administrative function but is elected by popular vote. The former put down his signature in exchange for 500 to 2,000 euros, the latter allegedly exchanged his stamp for guarantees of the votes of the beneficiaries and of their families. A summary of Greece's woes, where petty corruption is rivaled only by voter manipulation.

Greek and international organization reports rank public hospitals as one of the most corrupt institutions. According to Transparency International, it is where 42% of bribes are dealt out, more than for taxes (16%). Amounts vary from 30 euros to cut a line to 30,000 euros for certain surgical operations. Athens has grappled with the problem only recently, though cases like Zante's regularly make headlines: there are the Cephalonia Island amputees, the Thessalonica handicapped, the Viota region asthmatics…

Some doctors were collared, like the gynecologists who diagnosed asthma and depression. In Zante, the ophthalmologist is hesitant before he accepts an interview over the phone. Nikos Varzelis says it's a "political conspiracy" led by the mayor and swears that he wanted to "help the poor, without receiving any money."

Dyonisis Gasparos, the prefect, refuses to comment. In a local newspaper, this urologist, candidate for the right in the legislative elections on June 17, had explained that he "simply signed the certificates sent by the expert." It is only in Gasparos' home village of Keri on the southern edge of the island that people start to talk. Here, in the prefect's stronghold, there are 48 "blind" people for 630 inhabitants. Including the most famous swindler, a taxi driver, in close competition with a bird hunter.

"I want my children to grow up in a normal country.."

How to recognize them? There isn't a white cane in sight…On the beach at the foot of the village, the owner of the Rock Café wants to talk: "Because I work from dawn till dusk and I want my children to grow up in a normal country," says Hristos Vatos. "Poor people weren't the only ones who got the benefits, there were also café owners, prosperous farmers and even a hotel owner who had a pension for his heart while his wife had one for her blindness."

Mr. Vatos says it's easy to meet some of the fraudulent beneficiaries. He takes his phone and says a few words but takes it away from his ear as someone yells louder and louder into the receiver. "That wasn't a good idea," he says. How did these fake blind people react to the scandal? "Some were ashamed, but most weren't: they had found a good scheme in a period where no one has money." Did he know who they were? "We had doubts, no more."

"We are in a village, of course everybody knew!" says his neighbor Giorgos Kiourkas, who runs a boat rental. "Here, tricking the State is a source of pride, it means we're smarter than them." He doesn't have any names to give either - that's another thing you don't do on this island. The mayor has the same analysis. "People accused me of discrediting the island, but most people are starting to understand that fraud is serious, it's one of the things that ruined this country."

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Anna Oates

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