HAVANA — WHEN I first met Ra'ul Maceo, he was 17, an enthusiastic Cuban nationalist, and in love with American rock n' roll. On one of our first walks around old Havana I asked Ra'ul (not his real name) what President Fidel Castro meant to the Cuban people. ``Well, you have to understand that for us Fidel is like a cross between Jimmy Carter and Muhammad Ali,'' he said - that is, politician and superstar.
A few years later, Ra'ul spent two years fighting in Angola as part of the Cuban contingent helping the Angolan government against rebels supported by South Africa and the United States. He now works for a Cuban state company and listens to ``American Top 40'' every day.
On a visit to Havana earlier this month, I showed a taxi driver the return address on one of Ra'ul's old letters and found him still living there. We spent that night again walking around old Havana talking about music. We also discussed the implications of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's April 2-5 visit to one of the socialist world's few holdouts against his policies of openness and economic and political reform .
Ra'ul dropped me at my hotel and we made plans to meet in Revolution Plaza the next day to watch the two leaders on their way from the airport.
I went to my room, but Ra'ul got only a half block away before Cuban security agents detained him. They questioned him for five hours about his contact with me before releasing him. He had committed no crime or statutory infraction. He had simply been walking with an old friend who was a foreigner attending an event to which the Cuban government had invited hundreds of foreign journalists and officials.
``There are no laws against us walking together,'' he said later. ``But that's the way it is ... [and] I am powerless to do anything about it.''
Ra'ul admitted being frightened by the arrest, but he was angry the night we spoke. ``What have I been fighting for [in Angola]? What are we living for if this is all we can expect?'' There was a cynicism that had been absent in the youthful Ra'ul, the one who passionately defended ``Fidel'' and ``Soviet internationalism.''
I mentioned the change to him during dinner. ``Well that was a long time ago and I'm not that idealistic anymore,'' he conceded.
With us were two other Cubans, a father and son. The elder picked up on Ra'ul's lost idealism and launched on a withering critique of Castro's Cuba. This man was not a dissident; he was a member in good standing of a state enterprise and an official of his union. ``I also have my combatant's medal'' from fighting with Castro in the 1950s, he noted.
``These boys here have no rights,'' he said. ``If they'd [detained] me I could've called someone, gotten someone's hand slapped, because I am known. ``But these boys have no rights. That is the reality here.''
All three were skeptical that Mr. Gorbachev was the harbinger of change for Cuba. There would be no change in Cuba, they said, until Castro decreed it.
``We are so isolated'' the father said. ``And it is your fault,'' he said, implicating the world at large, especially those who praise the social benefits that Castro's revolution has brought Cuba.
``For 20 years [the outside world has] let Fidel do this to us. ... Argentine friends come here and tell me that they pay 60 percent of their salary for rent. And when I tell them I pay none, they exclaim `Oh what a paradise you live in.'''
``Cuba is the saddest place in the world. Know why?'' he asked. ``Because in Chile there are thousands of dead. In El Salvador thousands of corpses. But in Cuba there are tens of thousands with dead souls. They have killed our soul ... and all the poets say that is worse ...''
``We're tired of waiting, tired of having no hope ... never enough money,'' he said with a shake of his head. ``If you don't understand me, go ask the Russians.''
Two nights later I happened to pass several hours with five Soviet journalists. They were all from Moscow and had all voted for the dissident candidate Boris Yeltsin who overwhelmed his party-appointed opponent in national elections last month.
The Soviets were filled with a hope and spirit which - no matter how cautiously it was expressed - was irrepressible. None of them were impressed with Castro. He was the reactionary and Gorbachev was the progressive. The mood was in stark contrast to the atmosphere of the night before.