He is everywhere. You can feel it. From the moment you set foot in his country.

Yet strangely there are no pictures of him, no posters, no slogans with his identification.

Pictures of Che Guevara are everywhere. But nothing of Fidel Castro. There needn't be. He is Cuba.

It is never clear whether we will see him or not. It is hinted at. But never promised. We are lying on the beach at the International Hotel at Varadero, sipping Cuba Bellas at noon. Suddenly, our escort from the Ministry rushes over. "We must leave in 15 minutes for Harvana," he says.

No explanation.

We leave in 15 minutes.

Two hours later we check in at the Riviera Hotel.

And wait. And wait. And wait.

At a quarter to 9, a phone call. "Now."

We go. There's a car waiting for us downstairs, and a translator. We arrive at the president palace, a modern building, go up vast steps, through giant pillars and down long marble corridors, past armed military guards and into what is called "the Ice Box," a small and heavily air-conditioned room.

Minutes later we are summoned into Castro's office. He is waiting at the door for us, a serious, expectant look on his face. He shakes hands solemnly and leads the way to his sofa. We sit on the sofa leaving only the chair across from him to sit in.

"No, no," he says, waving us apart. "I want to sit between you so that I get to know you better."

The translator, Juanita, perches on the edge of the sofa where she is to remain for the next four hours.

Castro is taller than one might expect. He is wearing green fatigues, freshly pressed and beautifully tailored, gathered at the bottom, laceless black boots, a fatigue jacket zippered all the way up and buttoned. This room is also very air-conditioned.

We sit on the sofa, a modern sofa made of pony hide, as is all the furniture in his office. It is very sparsely furnished, with one very clean desk, which has two huge jars of candy, several bundles of papers and a large bookshelf behind. Over the sofa is an enormous impressionistic painting of Camilo Cienfuegos. Castro's friend and comrade in the Sierra Maestra who was killed several years ago in an airplane crash. Interestingly, there is no picture of Che.

Once settled on the sofa, Castro (Cubans call him simply "Fidel", never Castro) takes out a cigar and lights it.

We remark that he has seen a lot of American journalists recently, and he replies that he is not seeing us as journalists, but as friends. His aide, Ramirez, nods to us. This is the signal that we are not to take notes. It is not an official interview. No notes are taken.

He is obviously a little nervous. He hardly smiles, hardly looks directly at his visitors at all. He sits upright on the sofa, looks straight ahead, takes a puff on his cigar and begins to give what seems like a sermon on the subject of deep-sea diving. He launches into his litany in soft, preaching tones, explaining, giving facts about the dangers and the joys of this sport, the technical aspects. He will ask questions of himself, then answer them.

He finishes his monologue some 20 minutes later, his guests having hardly spoken except to ask a relevant question or two. Finally the lession is over. Now he relaxes, leans back, grin - the first real flash of humor.

Up close Castro is very pale, and his skin is not smooth. He looks as if he hasn't been outdoors in the sun in a long time. His beard is much grayer now and scraggly and his hair is graying as well. His voice is softer and higher pitched than one might ecpect. He uses his hands a lot, mostly entwined around his cigar - to gesticulate, to tap a visitor to make a point, to express himself. They are unexpected hands, large, smooth palms with thick knuckles and long tapering fingers. They are the hands of an intellectual, sensitive hands. Certainly not the hands of a worker.

But physical specifics do not explain his charisma, the charisma that allows him to be seen simultaneously as a saint and a pariah, an hysteric and a statesman, an international outlaw and a revolutionary sage.

In truth, Fidel Castro is many people.And it is the ability to be all things to all people to transform himself one moment from a priest to a warrior to a comic to a lover that attracts such enormous curiosity about him.

He is well aware of this ability. He understands its effectiveness and he uses it to his advantage. And when he is being one person you forget that he was ever anything else. Until of course, he launches into his next personality.

This is why almost everyone who meets him comes away completely charmed by this man. Because he can be what they want him to be.

Nobody really knows anything about Fidel Castro's private life. The reason for the mystery is probably two-fold. In the beginning Castro was very worried, about being assassinated and talks at length about the various attempts the CIA made on his life. For that reason he might well be equally protective about anyone he was living with and would be reluctant to reveal even the identity of the person.

Secondly, Castro is a master of publicity and public relations and he knows that being mysterious is not only appealing, but reinforces the image of power.

He was once married to Mirta Diaz Balart before the revolution and they had one son, Fidel. She was an anti-Communist who left Cuba long before the revolution and the son is living a quiet, deliberately low-profile existance in Cuba.

Still, the question now is, what does Fidel Castro do for a female companionship?

His detractors and certain hostile groups here in the United States will tell you without hesitation that he is gay. Mention that to Cubans who know him well and they laugh uproariously. There is absolutely no evidence that there is any truth to that accusation. In fact, street gossip has him with a different woman every night.

Castro leads a very guarded life, and though he as an apartment in the exclusive area of Fedado, near the ocean, he rarely spends consecutive nights there. He chooses to move around unexpectedly and spends the night unannounced at the apartments of a few selected friends. He stays at five different places and no one ever knows exactly where he will show up.

The woman closest to him, from all indictions, is Celia Sanchez.

Sanchez was one of the women with Castro in the Sierra Maestra. She has been officially his "secretary" until recently when she was named to the Council of Ministers. If you want to get to Castro you have to go through Celia Sanchez and everyone in Cuba knows that. She also has apartment above his in the same building and she acts as his housekeeper, even to the point of organizing his clothes. She is always around when his friends are there, even when he is conferring with all men. And she has been known even to straighten his shirt and scold him in front of people. Some say she acts like a Jewish mother to him. Others speculate that they are in fact secretly married and don't let it be known because of her safety and her personal insistence on privacy. She never gives interviews.

Whatever the case, Celia Sanchez is probably the most important woman in Fidel Castro's life.

With a male visitor, Castro is very straightforward, physical, jocular, touching him, putting his arm around him, patting his shoulder or tapping his knee to make a point, to get his attention. He speaks much more openly with a man, feels easier and more comfortable.

With a woman he is totally different. He never touches a female visitor once, except to tentatively shake her hand hello and goodbye. There is a feeling that he is looking through her rather than at her, the way he looks at a man. (Latin males fear actually seeming to appriase another man's woman.) When he does look at you, it is so penetrating as to make you want to look away, as though he suddenly knows all of your thoughts.

His posture changes when he talks to a woman. The confidence and assurance diminishes. He becomes shy with a trace of embarrassment. He needs approval from a woman. He knows he has it from a man. He is exceedingly polite, always showing a woman in first, deferring to her if she's talking, offering her a cigar, a drink, a seat.

With a woman, he immediately sets himself up to be teased. To be chucked under the chin, to be cajoled. He seems suprisingly vulnerable, gentle and appealing. It is easy to see why women in Cuba call him "Fidelito."

There is a difference, however, between his way of dealing with men and women emotionally and his way of speaking to them intellectually. He treats both exactly as equals in intellectual matters.

Because of this difference, the question arises: Does he still consider himself macho?

He looks stunned.

He takes a long, thoughtful drag on his cigar. He looks around the room at his two aides, who are trying very hard not to laugh. He starts nodding his head the way a comedian will who has been caught in the act and doesn't want to admit it.

Finally he replies with an embarrassed grin on his face.

"Siiiii," he says in an especially gruff voice, looking down at his feet."Siiii, I will have to admit I still have a little machismo myself." By then his two aides are completely broken up and Castro himself, no longer able to contain himself, to act serious, bursts out laughing.

"But not as bad as they are," he suddenly blurts our defensively, waving his cigar and pointing to the two aides, Ramirez and his standby from the days of the revolution, Pepin. "Especially Pepin." They howl with laughter this time and Castro looks somewhat absolved of his personal sin.

And with hardly a breath lost, he launches into an explanatory discussion of the Spanish-Arabic (Moorish) heritage of many Cubans and the roots of machismo.

He talks about the feudal cultural attidues about women, many derived from the Arab influences and he says they were even worse in Cuba, in the old days. He says it was (during the revolution he began to realize that you couldn't have a revolution without a women, that a revolution demands the held and support of women.

When Castro speaks about women there is almost a tone of severence in his voice. He speaks of how women are the factories for human production and how he will not allow women to do dangerous or harmful work in Cuba. He says he has made it a rule that special commercial jobs should be reserved for woman and they should be treated with utmost respect.

"Women," he says with great enthusiasm, "are the first-class citizens of Cuba." And he talks about how he has this wonderful idea, a new plan which he is going to launch in Cuba. The plan, he says, is that men must be gentlemen and treat ladies with respect. For instance, he says, a man should get up and give the lady his seat on the bus.He should open the door for her and should let ladies go first. That, he says, is his new plan and he even has a name for it. The name, he says proudly, is "el Caballero Proletariat," or "gentleman proletariat." He nods to himself approvingly, savoring the sound of the phrase.

He pauses for a moment, then moves on to the subject of the Family Code or "El Codigo," something that is clearly on every Cuban mind.

"Well," he says, "that will take a long time, especially in the provincess, in the countryside. It is not so bad in the city." He talks about how men have to get rid of machismo and how difficult it is.

How difficult, he is asked, was it to implement the Family Code, the legal division of household labor between men and women?

"Well," he says, and again goes to his cigar for comfort. Then he shrugs, shakes his head seriously and says, "As difficult as the Bay of Pigs."

Everyone begins to laugh.

"Don't laugh," he says, beginning to laugh. "This is very serious."

Ernest Hemingway fascinates Fidel Castro.

He says he has read all of his books and that the thinks it is absolutely amazing that anyone could write a whole book on one man chasing one fish ("The Old Man and the Sea") and make it interesting.

He says he met Hemingway twice when the writer was living in Cuba, once in the annual Hemingway fishing contest that he, Castro, won with six marlin in three days, and about which he said Hemingway's brother accused him of cheating because he got special help. This irritates him and he defends himself. "Well," he says, "everybody got special help because everyone went out in a boat with an expert captain."

He talks admiringly about Hemingway's war experience. He laughs about how much Hemingway drank martinis, whiskey, rum and then speaks sadly about how little he wrote after he won the Nobel Prize. He says he admired Hemingway, not only for his writing but also for his "courage, his spirit, his character. He was very brave," he says.

Like Hemingway, Fidel Castro is an interesting contrast. He is a primitive man who enjoys simple pleasures, yet he is also a highly complicated, sophisticated, intelligent man whose conversation is filled with literary, political and historical references. He loves to analyze problems, often in detail, and he is fascinated with the workings of everything, whether it is someone's mind or a cigarette lighter.

During this conversation he has become very masculine, very macho. Sitting forward on his chair, laughing jocularly about the fishing contest, almost as if he's one of the guys standing around a bar telling sports stories. It is clear "he identified in some way with Hemingway, with his masculinity, his courage, his lack of conformity.

All of this talk about fishing and the outdoors reminds Castro about his own life and how little change he has to get outdoors, how much time he has to spend in his office.

He looks disgusted. He waves and points at his desk. "Look at that," he says. "That's where I spend all of my time and it gets to be more and more time every day." He talks about the burdens of office work is awesome and unsatisfying. "Too much paperwork," he says again, with pain on his face. "Too much time in the office. Too little time out among the people."

"Yes," he says, "I was much happier at the beginning of the revolution, in the mountains. The revolution was the finest moment of my life." Those days were outdoors, leading the fight."That was the highlight of my life. Nothing will ever be like that again for me."

He comes to life when the talks about the revolution and the days in the Sierra Maestra. There is an expression of longing in his face.

He is really turned on. Then he slumps a bit. "The work is different now," he says. And he talks about seeing that everything must work, that he gets on with the goals of the revolution; the education of everyone, the, elimination of disease, the end of ostracism and discrimination against blacks and the equality of women, a strong economy, pollution, etc.

He is asked if he feels the same passion about his work now as he did when he was in the mountains and he becomes slightly dejected, then philosophical.

"I will always have passion for the things I believe," he says. "But it is not the same." He says the passion that makes you stay up night and day, night and day with no sleep or food, no, he says, those days are over."But the major objective of an older man is to stay young," he says. "Youth is so important and has such power. When you're young your brain cells are more active. There is so much more that you can accomplish. With age come different things, experience, patience." He becomes very wistful, speaks in a soft voice, almost inaudible at times, starring straight ahead, almost talking to himself.

At this point a round of daiquiris is served and he reaches over to take a sip.

He perks up when told he looks slimmer than his pictures, and laughs about how is always worried about it. "It is always a problem," he says. "It goes up and down." He says he tries very hard to diet but it is really hard because he loves to eat and that he worries about getting fat all the time, particularly because he never gets any exercise, except an occasional basketball game. Then he looks down at the roll at his middle and feels it to see if it's still there and says that he's not as slim as he'd like to be.

Fidel Castro is 50 now. And he doesn't have a successor. But he insists that's no longer a problem. He says that in the beginning the personality of El Jefe had been important, very important, especially to the people. But no longer. But now, he says, no matter how many leaders of the revolution the CIA would assassinate, the revolution would go on. He is asked what would happen if he suddenly became mentally ill or corrupt. "That would be no problem," he says with a matter-of-fact shrug. His comrades at the party committee would simply take him off to the psychiatric hospital. There was, he says, no chance for abuse there. The base strength after 17 years is said. "There is no longer a cult of personality in Cuba," he says.

"No charimatic figure. I discourage that," he says. "If you look in the papers you will not see my name all over or on the billboard's you will not see my pictures." He says it would be very said if 20 years of revolution went down the drain just because one man died. Now, he says, all the decisions are made in committee. "I am not a truly powerful person," he says, "the way President Carter is the most powerful man in the world. He can press a button and kill 170 million Americans. I don't have that kind of power."

He is calm, logical, reasoned.

Castro talks about expecting Jimmy Carter to make mistakes and he says, thoughtfully, "Well, I've watched five American Presidents make mistakes. Why not six?"

Several times during the evening, we have tried to indicate politely that we are willing to end the visit if he is tired. He will have none of it and we talk until 1:15. Finally he gets up, and shows us around the office. He wants us to see an original signed letter from Simon Bolivar which hangs on the wall, and he points to several boxes by the conference table. "You know what those are," he says. "Thos are tape recorders. You see I am just like Nixon. I tape everything," and he throws his head back and laughs delightedly: Then suddenly he invites us to eat and is issuing orders for something to be prepared when his aides remind him that all of the help would have to be awakened. In order to prepare something and he changes his mind, "Well, then," he says, "I will drive you to your hotel."

He reaches into the bookcase behind his desk, finds his cap, straps his belt with holster and pistol around his waist and off we go to a private elevator, down to a basement garage, where a black Soviet limousine is waiting, engine running, to take us away.

The three of us sit in the back seat, with our feet resting on a huge black gun, an AK-47, one that he carries with him always. We discuss the ground rules, saying we would like to write about the visit.

He thinks for a moment, looks at us keenly, then nods his assent.

He asks if we have ever been to Cuba before. He is told no, but that his visitor's parents spent their honeymoon in Havana.

"Aha!" he says, his face lighting up, "then maybe you are part Cuban!"

At the hotel, he gets out of the car, comes around and shakes hands enthusiastically, agreeing that we should come back to Cuba very soon.

It is not until he gets back in the car and closes the door that the crowd of about 20 Cubans outside the hotel, all slightly inebriated from the nightclubs, bursts into applause.

At about 7:30 p.m. the following night, Saturday night, the phone rings and it is Ramirez from Castro's office, announcing that he will be dropping by to pay us a visit. Nothing more. He arrives with Nellie, a new translator, at about 8, and announces that "El Presidente" will be dropping by shortly. Within minutes, no time to change, there is a knock on the door, and there he is, gun strapped to his side, hat off and in hand, his right-hand man, Pepin, behind him.

He says he can only stay 30 minutes, that he just wanted to talk a little bit more.

He stalks in and sits down in a chair in the living room and a waiter comes almost immediately with daiquiris that we have ordered.

Then he hands over some color photographs of the meeting the night before.

This evening the conversation is much more relaxed, totally comfortable. Still, when we ask to take notes, Ramirez only nods negatively. This is an informal visit and he wants to relax, though it is now understood that we will write about it.

It takes him two hours to drink the first daiquiri and when the second round appears out of nowhere he barely touches his.

He asks many personal questions and often seems to know the answers already.

He talks about cooking and how he loves to cook but he's trying not to because he gets fat. He says he has to be inspired, however. His favorite things are fish, but he cannot eat it unless it is fresh. Even if it is two or three days old, he can't eat it. His favorite dish is spaghetti and he says he makes fantastic spaghetti but the thing he makes the best is to throw everything in the refrigerator into a big pot and cook it up and it's always a masterpiece.

He also talks about how much he likes movies. It turns out he is a movie freak and watches them as often as he can. He says that the Cuban government never buys movies. They simply have popular foreign films copied and they get them free that way. He rubs his hands with glee at the idea of this marvelous piracy. "You see," he says michievously, "there is one advantage to the embargo."

Several times at the beginning of the evening he indicates that he must go because he is keeping us from dinner but we insist he is not. Finally after several hours he looks at his watch and says, almost offhandedly, "Well, it doesn't matter now. I've already missed the late show on TV."

He talks about the fact that he reads every night and that though he doesn't speack much English he reads books in English with a dictionary because it is good practice.

At one point he goes into a discussion of his education and he tells a poignant story of how when he was 5 or 6 his parents sent him away from the farm to live with a woman tutor in Santiago because he was being mischevious in school and needed discipline. He said they sent money to the woman, who spent it all for herself and hardly ever fed him so that when his parents finally came to visit he was literally starving to death. He tells this story with enormous passion, with numerous facial expressions and hand gestures, evoking smypathy as he went. Finally, he says, his parents took him away from the tutor and took him back to the farm.

"And do you know," says Castro, "what happened?" After the revolution, who should turn up in all the papers being interviewed about how she was Castro's old teacher? That's right. This woman!

He remembers the story in vivid detail as he remembers everything else. His mind moves from one subject to another and he splits out facts and ideas as though he is a computor.

Part of Castro's charm, exasperating at times, is that he can convince someone, at least for the moment, of something they do not believe.

In fact, he can actually make it sound logical when he says that the press should be a tool of the state and the party.

He is asked why none of President Carter's statements on Cuba recently has been published in the Cuban press.He answers simply that these statements had to do with diplomacy and diplomacy was strictly a matter for the state and the party to deal with. Diplomacy, he says, dealt with matters in flux and the people didn't need to know about it until everything was determined.

He says it was not like in America though he wishes that the Cuban press were more critical of Cuban affairs; they have to become more critical. Often, he says, nothing is said in the press about major news events until a time when he, himself, speaks to the people. This way, he can tell them what the feels they ought to know.

He goes on to say that in America the press plays a watchdog role, criticizing public wrongs, exposing them. In Cuba, this role is assumed by the people themselves. If someone is drunk too often, if someone arrives consistently late for work then the people take him aside and criticize him, straighten him out. Cubans have such respect for law and order that, as a result of the fear of this critical process, the responsibility of the press in oversight just doesn't exist.

What, we ask, will he do when his goal of having a totally literate population is realized, when everybody has a mind of his own and wants to have a voice of his own.

He becomes playful. He begins to smile.

He rolls his eyes. "Don't ask me," he says. "I don't know how to govern intellectuals. That," he says, "will be the problem of my successor."