HAVANA — AS young men, Gustavo Arcos and Jes'us Yanez Pelletier stood on opposite sides in the battle that launched the Cuban revolution and placed Fidel Castro on the road to power. Now, 37 years later, they fight together in a dangerous and seemingly quixotic campaign to expose human rights abuses and muster opposition to Mr. Castro's communist government.
Mr. Arcos and Mr. Yanez both concede Castro is firmly in control of Cuba and that they can do little in the near term to change that. Nevertheless, they say they are determined to resist a repressive dictatorship, if only by speaking out.
``This regime has cost much blood, much suffering,'' says Arcos. ``We think that information about the situation in the country is critical.''
Arcos, a former ambassador, and Yanez, who once served as Castro's military attach'e, are founding members of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. In the past 18 months, such activities have been sharply curtailed, apparently in response to communism's fall in Eastern Europe.
In July, 11 human rights activists were sentenced to prison terms of up to 15 years for alleged terrorist conspiracies. In 1989, 60 Cuban dissidents were imprisoned, according to Amnesty International. Despite such measures, Arcos and Yanez believe forces of change will catch up to Castro.
``The Marxist system has failed,'' Arcos says. ``Cuba, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam are the last representatives.... Now, every time something happens, it's a stimulus for us.''
Although Arcos and Yanez are free at present, both have paid a price to oppose Castro. Once a member of the privileged class, Arcos served as Cuban ambassador to Belgium from 1959 to 1966. But since he began speaking out, he has served three-year and seven-year terms in prison. Denied employment, he and his wife subsist on donations of food and money from sympathizers.
Arcos says he is frequently harrassed and his life threatened. In March, for example, more than 1,000 teenage communists gathered outside Arcos's rundown house in Havana screaming insults in an official demonstration the government termed a ``renunciation'' of his activities.
Such has been part of Arcos' life for nearly 25 years. ``In the world there are always going to be fights, because that's life,'' he says. ``But we hope for a world where human rights prevail, a world that goes toward freedom.''
Yanez, 73 years old, has served a single 11-year prison term and carries on his back a stark reminder of his prison time.
``Fidel Castro says that in his regime, in the prisons, no one is harmed,'' Yanez says. ``But I could say, `But who did this?''' as he points to the scar where he was bayoneted by a prison guard.
Both men's stories begin July 26, 1953, when Arcos and more than 100 other young Cubans followed Castro in a disastrous assault on the Moncada Army barracks in Santiago. Still, the Moncada attack was a political success, transforming Castro from an obscure figure into a national hero.
Arcos, shot in the leg during the attack, was captured along with Castro some days later. Like others, he was granted amnesty after two years in prison.
Yanez was an officer in Batista's Army stationed near Moncada. After Castro's capture in the mountains outside Santiago, Yanez was assigned to guard him.
Yanez says he had many opportunities to talk with Castro, and became converted. After the revolution, he says, he was appointed Castro's military attach'e.
``Fidel, we thought, was the defender of democracy, the young Mart'i,'' says Arcos, referring to the 19th century Cuban nationalist Jos'e Mart'i. ``We never thought he was a communist. He was a symbol of the new broom cleaning the country.''
But for both men the dream soon faded. As a diplomat, Arcos traveled throughout the East bloc and Western Europe. Yet, the years in Belgium were Arcos's only opportunity to observe democracy up close.
After his travels, Arcos grumbled to friends in Cuba that the revolution had taken a wrong turn.In 1966 he was imprisoned for his ``incorrect attitude.''
Yanez says his fall from grace came after he voiced refusal to attend a Soviet art exhibit. ``It reached sensitive ears,'' he says.
Yanez says he believes that, to Castro, ideology is nothing more than a means to an end. ``If the revolution had triumphed in 1939, we would have saluted like this and worn black armbands,'' Yanez says, holding up an arm in a Nazi-style salute.
Among Yanez's main goals now is calling attention to Mario Chanez de Armas, the longest-held political prisoner in Cuba. Yanez, who fought with Castro against Batista, was imprisoned July 17, 1961.
Inevitably, Arcos says, a solution must come from within. He does not favor United States intervention, or violent overthrow.
Indeed, he says he still respects Castro as champion of the revolution that overthrew the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Such sentiments are shared by many Cubans, and remain a key to Castro's strength.
Arcos, however, says he fears the government might resort to severe violence if discontent grows - something Castro has avoided during his 31-year rule.
``He knows our Latin temperament and that, after a point, we are ready to kill to settle accounts,'' Arcos says. ``We that are old know that our duty is to find a dignified way for him to end - and for his group, and for the people of Cuba, so they can have a path to democracy.''