Democracy Lab

The Kingdom of Silence and Humiliation

Looking back on life under the Assad dynasty.

They came for me on December 14, 2006. Plainclothes police carrying automatic weapons stormed into an Internet café in Damascus and grabbed me and a friend. They brought us in a car to the headquarters of the Syrian secret police. Around midnight they dragged me from my holding cell to the man I would come to know only as "Captain Wissam." He was a tall, dark-skinned officer. He looked at me and smiled. "We will release you in just a few minutes," he said. "You should be a good citizen." He then called a guard, whom he ordered to "take good care" of me.

Both men spoke with the distinctive accent of the Alawites; in fact, every single person in the prison did. The Alawite minority has effectively ruled Syria since 1963, and especially since President Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. So when you hear this accent, you pay attention. Ever since I can remember, this has been the way that the people with real power in our country speak.

They did not keep me for a few minutes. They threw me into a cell they called "the Suite." Measuring five feet by one and a half feet, it had no windows. There was a hole in the floor for a toilet and a hose attached to a faucet in the wall. The hose had two purposes: to keep the toilet clean and to provide me with drinking water. They told me I'd be staying for two years.

As it turned out, they let me go in 40 days. But that was more than enough. During that period, which I spent entirely in solitary confinement, I was interrogated constantly. I was tortured repeatedly, both psychologically and physically. (Forgive me, but I would prefer not to go into the details.) Every single day I feared death. When they released me, I staggered out onto the street, bearded and unkempt, wearing the same clothing I had on at the time of my arrest (though now everything was in tatters). Outside, everything seemed to be normal. People in the streets were walking around and enjoying their lives, smiling and laughing.

This was Syria under the Assads. I had drawn the attention of the secret police because of my membership in a student group that set out to publicize the human rights abuses of the regime. To engage in opposition meant questioning not only the government, but the entire version of reality that it had imposed upon us for decades.

Like millions of Syrians, I started my education at the age of six. My first day at school began with a greeting to our "Great Father," Hafez al-Assad. We sang songs in his praise. His picture was everywhere: in our notebooks, our textbooks, our classrooms, even in the bathroom. He was the one who protected us from the danger of the imperialists and Zionists. He was the one who regained the honor of the Arabs. At school we learned that Assad's cleverness had enabled Syria to win the Yom Kippur War, and we used to celebrate this day every year by holding up pictures of Assad marking the victory.

What we didn't know, of course, was that the regime had actually been defeated. They used to tell us that Bill Clinton said that he fears two things: death and Hafez Al-Assad. Once our teacher told us that an agent of a foreign enemy country had tried to assassinate Assad, but when Assad was in range, the agent couldn't see him on his rifle scope. The teacher told us that the hand of God intervened to stop the killing.

The portraits of the Great Father were always striking. When he smiled on TV, we felt intense love for our wonderful president. I was enrolled in an organization called "The Baath Party Pioneers." We dressed in uniforms and chanted every morning that we would stand behind our great leader to smash imperialism and Zionism. Just like any normal school kid, I conformed with the rest.

And why wouldn't I have? We thought of him as a supernatural being, a kind of god. I remember how once, in the fifth grade, we were wondering whether Assad really used the bathroom; the very thought was strange.

My first shock came at age nine. I was sitting next to my father watching the news on state-run TV, the only channel that we had. There was an interview with a Palestinian activist who ran an Arabic newspaper. I was very surprised. "Don't they live in tents?" I asked my father. "How can they print newspapers? How do the Israelis allow them to do that?" My father was very nervous and quickly replied, "Yes, they can have newspapers, but it's hard."

The person being interviewed was harshly critical of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. "Are the Israelis going to throw him in jail, like our neighbor?" I asked. "I don't know," my father replied curtly.

My neighbor was a political prisoner who belonged to a leftist movement. His children did not see him for seven years. He was released in 2004. When we asked why he was in prison, my family used to say, "He spoke badly about our Great Father, Hafez Al Assad."

The puzzle of my neighbor perplexed me. How could a country like Israel, portrayed as a ruthless enemy, tolerate criticism, while my neighbor rotted in prison controlled by the merciful father, Assad?

When Hafez's son died, the whole country dressed in black. We were not allowed to sing on the school bus due to public mourning. Every single person around me cried when he died. Posters all around us proclaimed that the son, Basil Al Assad, was a martyr. I was in fourth grade at the time, and I asked my teacher: "Didn't you teach us that martyrs are those who die while fighting the enemy?" "Yes," my teacher replied. "Then why do you call Basil a martyr when he died in a car accident?" The teacher was irate. She hit me hard and told me to bring my father. Because my school was a private Christian school, the problem was contained and the incident was not reported to state security.

In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, and was succeeded by his other son, Bashar. There was talk of reforms, but that didn't amount to anything. One thing did change, though: The omnipresent pictures of Hafez were now joined by new pictures of Bashar. The old personality cult was now transferred to the son.

This was the environment of fear in which I lived until I was 19 years old. That was when I figured out why my neighbor was jailed, why Basil was called a martyr, and why countless people didn't know the whereabouts of their fathers because they had dared to criticize the regime. I learned about many of these things through the Internet, which exposed me to a range of information I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Some friends and I founded a group that we called "Syrian Youth for Justice." We tried to raise awareness about human rights abuses and to counter the pro-Assad Islamic and national sentiments that were flourishing on our college campus. Activists associated with Hezbollah were openly allowed to recruit students and conduct propaganda. Those, like us, who supported the cause of secularism and democracy were arrested and imprisoned. Some of my friends were sentenced to terms of five or seven years in jail.

Unsurprisingly, many in Syria blamed me and a small group of activists rather than the Assad dictatorship. The state had conditioned people to associate activism with treason. As a result, most people treated activists as dupes or spies of foreign powers. Many of my friends refused to talk to me after I was released, and some of my relatives were even afraid to call and make sure that I was safe. But I knew Syria was a kingdom of silence and humiliation. I never expected the waves of the Arab Spring to reach the Syrian beach.

After my release, I fled from Syria, and lived in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. After a while I was granted refugee status and came to the United States of America. I will never forget the email I got from Alyssa Teach, a political officer at the American embassy in Lebanon in 2008. "Hi, Ahed, are you still in Lebanon? Please let me know if everything is ok with you." Since the Syrian government was trying to find me, the American embassy in Beirut was helping me with my papers to apply for refugee status. She was worried that the pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon could get to us, particularly since Assad did not like the idea of an opposition presence in Lebanon.

That email may look normal to many, but for a young man who was raised to hate America and consider it the greatest enemy of the world, it was an incredible feeling. I was hiding from the regime of the "Great Father," while the "Great Enemy" was checking in on me and helping me.

I never expected that my fellow Syrians would rebel. Now they haven't only rebelled, they are fighting to the death without fear. Tens of thousands have been killed and yet young men will protest, fight the regime, and refuse to give up. Not everyone has been brainwashed. One of the first things that the protestors did was to destroy the omnipresent images of the two Assads -- a signal that the end of the regime is near. As far as most Syrians are concerned, the end can't come soon enough.

BULENT KILIC/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

To Leave or Not to Leave

President Hugo Chávez’s victory in the presidential election has some Venezuelans wondering whether it's time to leave.

On the evening of Sunday, October 7, a small group of Venezuelan expats gathered together on Chicago's South Side to hear the official results of the presidential election as they came in. We had an idea of what was coming, but, even so, the announcement of the official results came as a blow. Maria, a first-year medical resident, was first to break the silence. "I can never go home now," she said. "I had hoped that I might someday go home."

The Venezuelan diaspora is roughly estimated to consist of about one million people worldwide, with particularly large concentrations in the United States, Spain, and Colombia. In the presidential election, its members overwhelmingly supported the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles -- who, they had hoped, might set about reversing some of President Hugo Chávez's more hardline revolutionary policies, someday allowing for a return to normalcy for a country ravaged by 14 years of class divisions, economic mismanagement, and capricious foreign policy. But his defeat, which means six more years of Chávez, has dashed those hopes. In the photo above, Venezuelan expats protest at a 2009 demonstration in Miami. But what of the 29 million Venezuelans who remain behind? Will they be likely to join their compatriots abroad? If Maria feels she cannot return to Venezuela, might more of Venezuela be coming to her?

It might certainly seem so at first blush. Just hours after the first official results were announced, my wife Marianella, a doctor, had received nine separate Facebook messages within the space of two hours from former medical school colleagues who wanted to ask about her experience emigrating two years ago. Countless Venezuelan Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and away messages this week featured sentiments along the lines of: "This is the last straw," or "That's it. I'm off to Miami."

Many in the international media have seized upon the idea that Chávez's next term -- including his promised "revolutionary deepening" and the country's looming economic woes -- is likely to precipitate a new mass exodus of Venezuelan refugees. I find this argument unconvincing. While the factors encouraging flight for the Venezuelan professional class (rampant crime, poor professional opportunities, disastrous government policies), are likely to grow worse, the available avenues for middle-class immigration may actually become more limited.

In Venezuela, emigration is primarily a middle-class and upper-middle-class phenomenon. Even in these difficult times more people are moving into the country than away from it as unskilled workers and independent merchants from places like Colombia, Ecuador, and Haiti pour in to take advantage of higher daily wages, generous social programs, and the higher prices their goods might command resultant from petro-liquidity. For these same reasons, the country's majority poor are reluctant to relocate to safer countries nearby, such as Colombia or Ecuador. Meanwhile, the very rich -- those hypothetically able to secure U.S. citizenship at will via a $500,000 investment for an EB-5 visa -- are often reluctant to leave a country where they are well-connected or enjoy high social or family status in exchange for a safer option where they might be a nobody. As one local saying puts it: "Better to be the head on a mouse than the tail on a lion."

What is currently happening is not so much an exodus, in fact, as a brain drain. And the pressures informing the brain drain are in some ways specific to the subgroups most affected: small business owners and members of the trained professions.

For several years now, a combination of stagnant wages and high inflation has rendered professional salaries increasingly inadequate when compared to the fortunes that can be made through dynamic entrepreneurship or public sector graft. Since education tends to be portable, and opportunities for professionals are often better abroad, many professionals in high-demand fields have already left. Even before the events of this week, a majority of my wife's medical school class from Venezuela's Central University had already departed for greener pastures, many of them going to Spain, the United States, Australia, or other nations elsewhere in Latin America. In fact, the scarcity of nationally trained doctors has become so acute in Venezuela that the government was forced to set up a special exchange program that trades oil to Cuba in return for physicians.

Beyond those in high demand professions like doctors, technicians, or engineers, others have relied on multiple citizenship to facilitate a move abroad. In the period following the Second World War over one million foreigners, primarily from Europe, settled in Venezuela serving as a labor force during the country's economic boom. As many countries award citizenship based on blood ties or ancestry, middle class Venezuelans often preserved these nationalities both as status symbol and as a possible hedge, multiple citizenship is not uncommon.

Likewise, among those employed at large multinational companies, it has been common to actively seek transfers to out-of-country locations, an increasingly frequent practice as companies disengage from Venezuela. For example, when Procter and Gamble opted to relocate their Latin American headquarters from Caracas to Panama City in 2007, well over 100 Venezuelan executives were relocated in the process.

In the past, certain Chávez-era government policies have done much to facilitate professional flight from the country. But these may now be on the way out. Since 2003 Venezuela has maintained a strictly controlled currency regimen, ostensibly to mitigate capital flight and stimulate the import economy. The government has done this by keeping the value of the bolívar fuerte, Venezuela's currency, artificially high to stimulate imports (a mirror image of Chinese policy on the renminbi, if you will), with official values pegged at roughly three times those offered on the black market. By arbitraging the official rate to cover education costs abroad, it is less expensive for a potential entrepreneur to study at Harvard Business School than at IESA, Venezuela's top management school. Whereas previously popular education abroad initiatives were highly competitive and required an agreement to repatriate upon graduation in exchange for scholarship funding, the current informal arbitrage regimen is accessible to nearly everyone (provided they have the bolívars to cover one-third of the cost) and comes with no strings attached.

The availability of cheap government dollars has also made it easier to purchase citizenship abroad in some cases -- if not in very expensive markets like the United States, then in more realistically affordable ones like Panama. Yet given the seeming inevitability of a substantial devaluation in January, as well as recent initiatives to restrict the availability of subsidized dollars towards basic imports it is uncertain how much longer these policies will be around to smooth the way for future emigrant waves.

Of course, as in any culture, the decision to stay or to leave one's country is a deeply complex and personal one. A great many individualized factors are almost certain to come into play. In a country where family ties run very deep, some Venezuelans may wish to leave yet feel unable to do so due to family responsibilities - an elderly parent who cannot be moved, for example, or a dependent child from a former relationship. For others it may well be a matter of personal conviction that they owe it to their country to stay and help turn it back around. Still others may be reliant on a business that cannot be easily moved or sold (such as a store), or else a profession tailored specifically to Venezuela, such as in the case of a lawyer or bureaucrat. The list goes on.

Where the exact tipping point might lie for folks such as these is anyone's guess, but if they have not left already, it seems likely that they may stick around until things get substantially worse. Other factors such as perceived weaknesses in the regime and Chávez's uncertain health status, may likewise entice some Venezuelans to hold off a little longer.

The Venezuelan opposition needs them to do just that. On December 16, Venezuelan voters will again return to the polls to vote for new governors in the country's 23 states, eight of which, including most of the capital, are currently held by the opposition. Losing ground might well kill off what remains of the opposition's pre-election hopefulness and unity. A couple of years later a new parliament will also have to be elected. While non-resident citizens are allowed to participate in presidential elections, they are constitutionally disenfranchised at the regional and parliamentary levels and each vote thus lost to emigration would take the opposition further from its goal.  

If it hopes to remain relevant, the challenge for the opposition will be to keep hope alive, so that the 6.5 million anti-revolutionary Venezuelans who supported him Sunday will stick around to vote with their hands instead of with their feet.

In weathering the storm unity will be key. Historic divisions within the opposition have previously rendered it weak and disorganized and from Simon Bolivar to Chávez himself, Venezuelans have always responded to strong leadership. Now that the opposition has found a leader worth rallying around in Capriles, it must make every attempt to maintain internal harmony (at least publically) and not succumb to the internal gripes and fractures that for many years rendered them politically irrelevant.

They must also communicate to their supporters that, while the presidency may have been lost, hope should not be. Chávez owes much of his success to having stayed in permanent campaign mode throughout his tenure, and if the opposition ever hopes to beat him they must learn to do likewise and they will not be able to count on even a fraction of the government's considerable resources to do so. Yet by focusing on positive messages rather than divisive ones, and holding Chávez accountable to the unrealistic promises he made during the recent campaign, they may succeed in capitalizing on regime missteps as Venezuela itself continues to break down.

One of the best-selling pop singles to ever come out of Venezuela was 1997's "I'm staying in Venezuela" by Caracas singer-songwriter Carlos Baute. The refrain goes: "There's no evil that lasts a thousand years, no body would be able to resist it./I'll be staying in Venezuela, because I'm optimistic." This is essentially the message that must be successfully communicated by the opposition to their supporters if they are to retain momentum and inspire weary middle-class Venezuelans to continue giving their country the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, they will not be able to rely on Baute himself. He moved to Spain in 2000.

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