NEW YORK—Jesús de León remembers clearly when his spirit finally shattered. He was 13 years old. It wasn’t an obvious wound like a broken leg, but rather a deep cut to his soul after years of indoctrination and violence that slowly warped his thinking and stole his innocence.
De León was born in Cuba in 1966, almost a decade after Fidel Castro seized power and purged dissenters.
“I was at the heart of the revolution,” de León said at his home in Brooklyn on March 16. “I was raised with being indoctrinated within the communist system.”
From the first days of primary school, de León said he had to swear allegiance to and salute Castro every day.
“We had to repeat, ‘We are pioneers of the communist party like Che [Guevara],'” he said. “Now that I’m an adult, I realize that every day I repeated that as a child, it became part of me—my body, mind, blood.”
De León attended the Lenin High School in Havana. It was the pioneer of vocational boarding schools and the nation’s most elite—it was officially opened by the general secretary of the Soviet Union Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev. During orientation, de León was told that Castro’s goal for the school was to form “pure communist students.”
His six years there were “traumatic” and “horrendous,” he said. The worst time for de León was in 1980 during the six-month exodus of 125,000 Cubans to America, known as the Mariel boatlift.
Anyone who wanted to leave Cuba had to get permission through their workplace, and because all jobs were state-run, that meant the whole government apparatus was immediately alerted. It was impossible to leave without the government knowing.
Families who wanted to leave were labeled as traitors or worms, and punishment was meted out swiftly—before the families could actually depart.
De León and his classmates were required to be part of the punishing force. He was 13 the first time he was loaded onto a school bus and taken to the house of a family that was about to emigrate.
“We threw rocks at the house and smashed it up. The goal was to break into the house,” de León said. “I participated in this sometimes several times a day.”
“One time we went onto the roof and started throwing rocks at the people in the house, while they were eating a meal,” he said, noting that even neighbors would participate.
There was no question of not joining in. He said: “They will poison your spirit from day one, so you do what everybody else does. You have so much fear. You didn’t even question it.”
De León’s classmates and friends were no exception, and he was forced to turn against them as well.
“What happened here changed my life completely. From that moment on, I never believed in friendship. This dehumanizes you,” he said. “Everything becomes normal to beat up people and smash their homes—it’s legal.”
When parents came to the school to advise the authorities their child was leaving, the students would beat the parents, de León said.
“One time, a group of us threw rocks at the father of a fellow student and one smashed his head,” he said, his kind eyes quickly cast down.
“I remember one time at school they put a girl on a stage and everybody was yelling at her. They attacked her, ripping her clothes off, and she ran with her parents to their car to escape.”
“The teachers encouraged us to do this and participated—the principal and dean as well.”
De León said it was during this time that he abandoned the concepts of trust and friendship.
“Even though Ruben could be my best friend today, he could be my enemy tomorrow,” he said. “I didn’t care after that, and I felt very lonely.”
Every neighborhood had a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). The CDR was the domestic spy apparatus for the Cuban regime.
“The CDR knows everything about every household, their schedule, what school they go to, their workplace, how they think—everything,” de León said.
Each household was given a rations booklet for buying food and clothing—the government wrote exactly what families could get–such as beans, eggs, clothes, and so forth.
“It was super hard to get food in Cuba,” de León said. “We had to always choose whether to buy food or clothes; we could never really clothe ourselves properly.” His father often did odd jobs to get cash for black market purchases.
Leaving With No Goodbyes
De León went on to graduate as a lawyer in 1995 and worked at the Cuban Office of Intellectual Property. He was a womanizer and a drunk, and his work seemed dishonest.
“I realized I was becoming degenerated as a person,” he said. “I could still tell right from wrong, but I couldn’t act in a different way. I wanted to change my life. I didn’t want to live in a communist country.”
His job meant he occasionally traveled overseas for work, so he was one of the very few Cubans who was given a passport—which became his ticket out of a life he detested.
In 2004, right before he traveled to Brazil on a work trip, de León made the decision to defect. He was getting a lot of pressure to join the Communist Party—it was very rare for someone of his career position to not be in the Party.
He couldn’t say goodbye to his family because he knew he might be found out.
“I remember the exact moment I left. It was very painful,” he said. “It was not normal, not human.”
Trying to Rebuild
In Brazil, de León left his swanky hotel in Rio de Janeiro and went to live on the street. He met an Argentinian woman and traveled with her to Argentina. They later married. He was glad to get out of Brazil—the government had an extradition agreement with Cuba, and he was afraid they would track him down. He could also speak Spanish in Argentina.
“When I left Cuba, I never drank alcohol again, I was never promiscuous again. I underwent a lot of changes,” de León said.
But he didn’t magically sweep into a free and fabulous life post-Cuba and put it all behind him—some fundamental things were still too ingrained in his psyche.
“I couldn’t go forward. I had no hope,” he said. His recollection of his nine years in Argentina is vague, and for years he was sick and depressed. “I lost everything: my country, my family, my friends, my career.”
His inability to have proper relationships and his apathy toward life continue to haunt and damage him.
“Even now, I can’t trust anyone,” he said. “I believe that’s the most harmful part of communism—the lack of trust. Because you always feel alone.”
De León won a U.S. green card in the lottery and moved to the United States in December 2012.
He gets upset when non-Cubans romanticize life in Cuba.
“Those people have never lived in Cuba. They live in very free societies where they have the liberty and freedom to fantasize. It’s part of freedom: They can choose. And they are not willing to lose everything and go live in Cuba.”
“I was born in Cuba and the regime imposed the system on me. And when I tried to choose, I lost everything.”
De León posed a sobering question to romantics: “Why do Cubans throw themselves into the sea to leave Cuba?”
And for all he has lost in life, de León is very quick to say he will never return to Cuba, “even if they offer me again what I had before.”
Communism is estimated to have killed at least 100 million people, yet its crimes have not been fully compiled and its ideology still persists. The Epoch Times seeks to expose the history and beliefs of this movement, which has been a source of tyranny and destruction since it emerged. Read the whole series at ept.ms/TheDeadEndCom