A few days before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived here last weekend, several human-rights activists and political dissidents gathered in the home of Dr. Elisardo Sanchez to receive a stream of visiting foreign journalists. The dissidents' excitement over the attention of the international news media was clearly evident. They seemed to be in their element and were virtually aglow with confidence.
The scene highlighted a singular anomaly of their lives: In Cuba, they are brave - but essentially unheard - voices. Their main constituency is made up not of fellow-Cubans but of the foreign press and the United States government.
In fact, to most Cubans, groups such as the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the Pro-Human Rights Party, and the Martiano Committee for the Rights of Man, are largely unknown curiosities. But even for their so far low-key efforts to reform Cuba's tightly controlled society, human rights activists bear the full weight of the ruling Communist Party's repression.
Many have been dismissed from their jobs, most are under constant surveillance. And their futures depend on the shifting winds of political tolerance. In recent months they have been tolerated, and those arrested have been sentenced to jail terms or fines that are comparatively light.
Take an instance last week: On Wednesday, 10 members of the Human Rights Commission were arrested for running a ``clandestine business'' - publishing a one page, hand-typed newsletter called ``Frankness.'' The first issue was published in January, and has been put out four times, each run consisting of 100 copies.
On Thursday - in the first open political trial in Cuba since the 1959 communist revolution - five of the 10 activists were fined 300 pesos each and released. They were given the minimum sentence - in contrast to last year, when about 30 activists were reportedly sentenced to jail terms of between nine and eleven months.
In this, and a few other respects, the human rights situation has improved. There are about 200 political prisoners in jails, compared to 10,000 in the 1970s.
Still, as Samuel Martinez of the Human Rights Commission noted when he was fined Thursday, ``This may be an improvement over the past, but [it] is far from being anything like justice.''
``Our political space here is like the shade afforded by a small tree,'' explained Dr. Sanchez, president of the commission. ``But we as a political grouping are moving to a point beyond where we will be in the shade.''
He was referring to a newly formed coalition of several human rights and dissident groups. The members are coming back together after having splintered since 1987.
Sanchez does not, however, expect Mr. Gorbachev's visit to bring any improvement. Moscow subsidizes Cuba to the tune of $4 billion to $5 billion a year. But, so far, it has been able to persuade President Fidel Castro to jump on the Soviet-led bandwagon of economic and political reform.
``[Gorbachev] has many problems at home and, let's face it, Cuba is not that important,'' Sanchez said. ``But he must know that despite what he says at the United Nations [about human rights], he is still financing Castro's repressive machinery here.''
Sanchez and other activists at last week's gathering, like Hubert Jerrez and Esteban Gonzalez, spoke of the slow formation of independent trade union groups, openly functioning political parties, and other associations of dissidents. This movement, according to informed estimates, encompasses only about 300 people in a nation of 10.3 million - testament to the organizing problems facing Cuban activists. `THE human rights groups are made up mostly of intellectuals, professional, and ex-prisoners,'' notes a diplomat. ``They have not broken out of the small middle-class grouping they are ... but, more important, they are not really speaking the language of most Cubans.
``The average Cubans, like most people in the world, don't think in terms of democracy and philosophy. They look at their lives and see what is missing and what they want,'' he continues. And for most of them ``the biggest enemy is bureaucracy and lack of better material goods.''
Indeed, some of the dissidents' criticisms seem far-removed from Cubans' everyday concerns. Mr. Jerrez, for example, cites Cuba's $6.4 billion foreign debt and the fact that Havana has not had a good coat of paint in 30 years as a ``massive violation'' of human rights.
Another obstacle for dissidents, diplomats say, is that Mr. Castro's personal popularity remains high. Many Cubans feel beholden to his revolution for the education and health benefits - among the best in all of Latin America - that it provides them.
It is this mixed record of the revolution 30 years later that complicates activists' efforts to channel discontent into an organized political movement. Cubans seem well aware that although they have virtually no guaranteed rights of free speech, thought, or assembly, neither do they have the widespread political terror that prevails in El Salvador, Guatemala, or neighboring Haiti.
``Most Cubans now have grown up with the revolution, and for them, their discontent is inside the revolution, not against it or Castro,'' says a diplomat.
Thus, it appears that most complaints center on the listless bureaucracy and the widespread lack of consumer goods.
Topping the criticisms of political rights is the complaint about the right to travel freely. This, for many Cubans, would mean visiting friends and family, and going on shopping sprees, in Miami.