CUBA: A Journey By Jacobo Timerman Translated form the Spanish by Toby Talbot Knopf. 125 pp. $18.95

CUBA: A Journey by Jacobo Timerman is a poignant obituary of the Cuban revolution and its "maximum leader," Fidel Castro. This slim book of impressions, based on a visit to Cuba in 1987, is a particularly effective intellectual and ideological indictment because Timerman, an Argentine journalist of considerable international reputation (as well as of controversy), regards himself as a man of the Left who, as he announces on the opening page, had always supported Cuba's right "to defend itself from United States aggression."

But Timerman's credentials for expressing merciless condemnation of what Castro has perpetrated in Cuba in the name of the revolution -- especially absolute denial of the most elementary freedoms and human rights to 10 million Cubans -- include his imprisonment by the "Fascists" of Argentine military regimes in the 1970s for denouncing in the columns of his newspaper massive violations of the human rights of the Argentines.

Timerman's judgments therefore must be taken seriously because he is a Latin American politician attuned to Latin American political culture, to the tragedies of Third World economic and social underdevelopment and to the workings of the Latin American dictatorial mind. In other words, this is not an attack on this aging revolution and its aging chief by a yankee rightwinger who simply abhors socialism, communism and all its mutations. What the book does is write a sad finis to a whole era of revolutionary ardor, hopes and dreams.

The Timerman account of his Cuban experiences, which chiefly and most interestingly were conversations with intellectuals as well as ordinary citizens, adds up to a horrifying image of a nation that has become "verbally immobilized . . . frozen" by fear of the Castro regime -- apart from being deprived for the three decades of the revolution of everything that represents the most minimal requirements of the most primitive consumer society. Cubans, he writes, live inside a "glass dome," carefully isolated from outside ideas.

One of the most revealing and chilling aspects of Timerman's voyage to Cuba is that he had gone there as a result of what, in effect, was a basic political misunderstanding on the part of the Havana authorities. The Cubans saw him as an exponent of "affirmative ambivalence" toward the revolution because of his books against Argentine fascism and Israel's invasion of Lebanon. (Timerman, calling himself a "Ukrainian Jew," now holds Israeli as well as Argentine citizenship.) They assumed that for these reasons Timerman would automatically become an apologist for the revolution; they missed the fundamental point that their guest was an advocate of the universality of human rights and that, as such, would inevitably turn against Castroism. Curiously, all dictatorships tend to commit this error in dealing with reasonably honest writers and other public figures from abroad.

As Timerman tells it, this underlying misunderstanding colored all his relationships in Cuba, affected all his conversations with officials and intellectuals and created a dialogue between the deaf.

The utter unreality of intellectual and political life in revolutionary Cuba emerges from this exchange between Timerman and Miguel Barnet, a gifted novelist who is usually made available for chats with visiting intellectuals and who has the gift of survival in Castro's cultural minefield:

" 'If Kafka were writing in Cuba, would he be able to publish here?'

" 'Maybe not, but he could publish abroad. After all, he wrote in Prague and didn't care to publish everything.'

" 'But if he published only abroad, could he live in Cuba without being criticized?'

" 'Before, not; now, possibly.'

" 'Would he be persecuted?'

" 'No, He'd certainly be criticized by the official press -- and everything is official -- though if someone prestigious defended him, he'd be protected from reprisals.'

" 'Someone from Cuba or from abroad?'

" Preferably from abroad. Besides, many writers in the capitalist world had a hard time, particularly James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence.'

" 'Supposing he wanted to leave the country?'

" Many high officials would be opposed to it, but Fidel would decide in his favor.' "

Timerman points out, and Barnet's remarks bear it out, that today there is no climate in Cuba for real creativity. Most of its top writers (from Herberto Padilla and Guillermo Cabrera Infante to Jorge Vals and Antonio Benitez Rojo) live and compose in exile. There is no Tadeusz Konwicki or Vaclav Havel on that lush Caribbean island. Mediocrity and subservience to the regime reign supreme.

It is for Fidel Castro that Timerman saves his greatest scorn and detestation though one suspects in reading the book that he basically regrets that things have come to this pass. He writes that while in Cuba "I was unable to rid myself of the depression produced in me by constant collisions with the Commander's omnipotence," then fires this broadside:

"The Commander's megalomania and {the} collective supporting hypocrisy is the dominant feature I encountered in Cuba: it defines society, the power structure, cultural life, work, family relations. No false or moderately credible statistics, no horrible past or promised paradise, no real or magnified threat, justifies this distortion of the elemental norms of human life . . . The alternatives are corruption and resignation."

Timerman's summation of life in Cuba is downright pathetic:

"Waiting constitutes the inner dynamic of Cuba. Cubans are waiting for an outcome, a result, a finale. Those of us who go there are waiting too, hoping to discern clearly what it is the others are waiting for. When you arrive . . . you're convinced, or under the illusion, that objectivity and lack of bias will serve more than anything else to initiate a spontaneous dialogue with the Cuban people. You're waiting for some sensible statistic to eradicate the nightmare of hundreds of books, declarations, manifestoes, all suspect of bad faith. You're waiting for some individuals . . . to express themselves with a coherent awareness of what's happening in their lives and in the lives of their families; to shed some light on the confusion concerning the Cuban adventure that troubles both enemies and skeptics . . . But the words that come forth sound automatic."

And Timerman's closing comment freezes the frame on today's Cuba where Fidel Castro has already given Cubans the staggering choice: "Socialism or Death!" Timerman writes: "What happens next remains a frightening unknown." Tad Szulc is the author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" and, most recently, "Then and Now: How the World Has Changed Since World War II."