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ATHENS, Greece – There's an early morning buzz at Varvakios Market in downtown Athens as dozens of butchers prepare cuts. Knives slice through fresh meat and stripped-clean carcasses tumble into a white vat as the first customers turn up.
Outside of Kleanthis Tsironis' stand, a worker tries to interest shoppers in small, fresh chickens from the town of Ioanina. The bustle hides growing anxiety: Tsironis says he doesn't know how much longer he can keep his 27 employees now that the embattled Greek government has closed the banks, blocked credit card use and issued capital controls that limit cash machine withdrawals.
"I have no cash to pay for meat supplies for next week because of the capital controls," says Tsironis, who started the business 51 years ago when he was a teen. "Sooner or later, probably in this month, I'll have to let 10 people go. The people are buying with cash, not credit cards, and the problem is the customers don't have cash."
On the streets of the Greek capital, resplendent in the early days of summer, there's still a veneer of normalcy — at least for foreigners. Sun-seeking tourists arrive by the planeload, airport currency changers hum along, and the big ferries pull out nightly from the nearby port of Piraeus bound for pleasure spots like Crete, Rhodes, and the quintessential party island, Mykonos.
But for locals, the miserly 60 euros ($67) per day cash limit at ATMs means it will soon be a massive strain just to run a small business or keep a family going. And the drama is unfolding without a script, no safety net in sight. Beyond Greece, the fate of the vaunted, decades-old European project is in doubt with the approach of Sunday's referendum on the latest international bailout proposal — a de facto vote on whether or not to remain in the euro.
The capital controls are one in series of maneuvers by Greece's radical left government — which came to power this year on a promise to break free of austerity programs — that has threatened the stability of the global financial system. Many fear that ruling Syriza party's hard line on the bailout will force Greece out of the EU itself, and possibly lead to a contagion effect that would eventually unravel the union.
The government is still ironing out the details of the capital controls on what seems to be an ad hoc basis, adding to the confusion of daily life. It has made concessions to allow retirees without bank cards to withdraw a limited amount of cash from some banks, since it has become clear that many pensioners don't have access to ATMs and have been completely cut off from their savings.
So far, Greeks seem to find the controls annoying but bearable. Some blame Europe's leaders, some blame their own, and many share a queasy feeling that Greece is slipping backward in time, withdrawing from the electronic, digital arena back into a cash-based world.
Retiree Roula Chica seemed resigned as she pushed the "60 euro" button at an ATM outside Greece's National Bank so she could have cash for a doctor's appointment. She didn't waste time pushing the "200"or "300" buttons, knowing such a request would be rejected.
"It's not terrible, but it's more time at ATMs," she said, carefully pocketing the cash after waiting about 10 minutes in line.
Fishmonger Spyros Corakkis still sells a wide variety fresh fish from the sparkling Aegean Sea to hotels and restaurants, but he has been forced to replace the monthly invoicing system — which worked fine — with an all cash system, with payments made each day.
"It's a big problem when the banks are closed," he said. "It's much more difficult."
At the Elaea Cafe next to the Acropolis, owner Yannis Iliopoulos said the capital controls had an immediate negative effect because Greeks stopped coming for coffee and sweets, even as the international tourists continued to spend money. The controls do not apply to visitors with foreign-based credit cards, creating a two-tier system.
"From Sunday when the controls were announced it's like the termites have gotten into the house," said Iliopoulos, who has cut the restaurant's food orders to keep them in line with his reduced cash flow. "There is a lot of anxiety."
For most of his career, Tsironis, the market butcher, has been a successful businessman, not wealthy, but living well and providing a good life for his family. His profits have dropped 70 percent during the long, drawn-out crisis over Greece's failure to pay its strangling debt.
Despite the pain of austerity, Tsironis says the government must cancel the weekend referendum, reach a bailout agreement with Europe's leaders and lift the capital controls — rather than risk driving the country over a cliff.
"I'm very afraid that I will go to prison for debts," said Tsironis. "I'm 65 and I can't pay the bills."