THE IRONY of it all is that Cubans are enormously impressed with freedom of the press in the United States, particularly because of Watergate.

There is hardly a Cuban who doesn't know, in fairly good detail, the events of Watergate. To the Cubans, the press was heroic in its watchdog role, its adversary role in dealing with our government.

Yet turn this around on them, suggest the idea of the same thing occurring in Cuba, and they go positively blank.

Freedom of the press? But we don't need that here. Our government is not corrupt, our people love our government.

That seems to be the general argument, though each Cuban has his own way of rationahing it.

Castro, himself a Watergate freak, has his own explanation. Cuba doesn't need a watchdog press, he says, because that role is fulfilled by the people, who themselves criticize and expose public wrongs.

Two men whose work intimately involves them in areas where freedom of thought, speech and the press should be matters of everyday concern have both made their peace in different ways with the lack of freedom in Cuba. Both are intellectual oases for visiting journalists, writers and artists who often can't find others either articulate enough or secure enough to discuss these touchy subjects.

One is a 46-year-old professor, a former "bourgeois" who had to learn the new ways. He is the editor of Cuba's literary magazine, a product of its cultural center, La Casa de las Americas.

The other is a man of 32, come to adulthood in the revolution, one who knew nothing else and is only beginning to learn that there are other ways. He edits Havana's afternoon newspaper, Juventud Rebelde. The Intellectual

IT IS RAINY, windy and cold in Havana, very unusual weather for Cuba. Roberto Retamar peers up at the menacing sky and frowns. "Clearly," he says, "this weather is caused by the CIA. It is a filthy capitalist, imperialist plot."

Retamar obviously has a sense of humor. But more than that he is one of the most articulate Communist spokesmen on the issues of freedom of thought and speech, particularly because of his intellectual, Petit bourgeois background.

"At the beginning of the revolution, the grande bourgeoisie was doomed. Most of them were either rich people who left the country or those who were not rich but were against the revolution. So who could be the administrators? Certainly not the remaining grande bourgeoisie and certainly not the uneducated workers, the poor people. So it was decided that we petite bourgeoisie, we intellectuals would have the responsibility.

"The first years of the revolution were our paradise. It was made for us. If they needed an ambassador, they wouldn't take a peasant or a worker, or a member of the grande bourgeoisie. But we were literate and we represented the people who could still not read or write.

"Before the revolution I couldn't afford to go to fancy restaurants. After the revolution we had all this responsibility; we could say and do as we liked, we made money. I could go to the best restaurants, anywhere."

But the intellectuals soon were in for several shocks. The first was an invasion of their property.

"The level of everyday life began to lower," says Retamar. "For instance, my mother-in-law lived in a beautiful building. Then who entered? A peasant with a wife and 12 children occupied an apartment which had been abandoned. The children tore up the building. They were vulgar and destructive and noisy. They were not the beautiful abstract peasants you read about in revolutionary books. After the first honeymoon, when the real working people who lacked manners and taste entered our lives, it was a purgatory for the petit bourgeois. Our territory had been invaded. These people, these petits bourgeois who had not been traitors to the revolution, were suddenly saying, 'They past was not my moment and the future is not my moment either.'"

Worse was to come.

The intellectuals were beginning to criticize the revolution and even demanded of Castro, "How far can we go in being counterrevolutionary?"

Finally, in 1961, a group of intellectuals was summoned to meet with Castro, according to Retamar. It was that day that he made a now famous speech to them, saying, "With the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing."

In other words, he told them, you may do as you like as long as you do not harm the revolution. You are not allowed to attack the revolution. "Why?" asks Retamar. "Because the revolution has a right to survive. How could we survive if counterrevolutionaries destroyed the revolution? Then one freedom - to destroy the revolution - would have been had, the other - to survive - would have been lost.

But in fact, Castro never really answered the question, "How far can we go?" And it wasn't until 10 years later that the intellectuals found out. The hard way.

Heberto Padilla, a poet, began talking down the revolution, writing counterrevolutionary poems and finally a book which expressed his dismay and sorrow at many of the results of the revolution. In March, 1971, he was arrested and jailed for five weeks, being released only on condition that he confessed he was guilty of committing serious transgression against the revolution.

Today Padilla leads a quiet life working in a library. Retamar justifies the Padilla affair, saying, "He was against the revolution."

RETAMAR's FATHER was a petit bourgeois professor. He himself went to the University of Havana and studied philosophy and letters.Later he studied in Paris and London and taught poetry at Yale for a year. "My family," he says, "was the type of family which produces student leaders and intellectuals."

He was involved in the revolution. "Practically speaking," he says, "everybody was against Batista. It was normal, like inhaling. You didn't need to be political to be against corruption. The revolution was not something to be against but something to be in favor of."

He entered the Civic Resistance Movement, gathering money and weapons for those fighting in the mountains. And he wrote an important secret paper called "Resistance" under the non de plume "David," after the biblical psalmist.

He had been offered a position to teach and study at Columbia University when the revolution broke out.

"Frankly," he says now, "I never believed that Fidel was going to win and establish revolution. So in 1959 I accepted a position with Columbia. And then Batista collapsed. It was magnificent. I resigned from Columbia. Havana University was reopened, I began teaching there, I became a journalist, I wrote for Revolution, and organ of (Castro's) 26th of July Movement, then I began to edit the literary magazine."

"I was," he says, "extremely happy when the revolution came. There are many ways to approach a revolution. For peasants it means they will have some land, for workers it means they will have work, for the starving it means they will have food. For us intellectuals, who had only read about it in books, it was a dream come true. Many of the people who left the country then simply lacked imagination. Though certainly those who had a lot of money had an understandable reason."

Retamar says that you couldn't face these problems of revolution, however, without understanding that people are divided into classes and that there is such a thing as a class struggle.

"Most intellectuals at the beginning were of petit bourgeois orgin," he says, "so that when the agrarian reform came we were happy. We weren't owners of land. Then, when the urban reform came, we were happy because we weren't owners of big buildings. Agrarian and urban reform were positive things for the lives of the workers but negative for the owners. At that moment, we thought we were in favor of universal freedom."

As intellectuals, says Retamar, they thought they were in favor of freedom in an abstract way.

"But," he says, "there is no abstract freedom. If I was in favor of agrarian reform, then I was not in favor of complete freedom because it was not freedom for the owners. Defense of abstract freedom is a defense of exploiters."

In those days, says Retamar, the intellectuals were afraid of losing their freedom. "We feared that measures would be taken to impose upon us. Why? Because we were revolutionaries? No. Because we were petits bourgeois. I was a landowner of culture and intelligence was my private property."

ROBERTO RETAMAR has two children, ages 15 and 17, who he says are both militant members of the Young Communist League. "They have no contradictions with the revolution," he says. "It's life to them. They are so brutally open and frank about it and so able to criticize the things that are wrong with it I am astonished. I had to learn the revolution. I speak it with an accent. To them it is their native tongue."

For this reason, says Retamar, he is more apprehensive than his children of criticizing the revolution, because he is not completely at home with it the way they are. "A man who is against the revolution is afraid to speak out against it because he doesn't know what to say, how to do it."

The more totally involved and in favor of the revolution one is, he says, the easier it is to criticize and to point out problems, because one has the confidence of being secure in one's beliefs.

"You have to understand that this doesn't mean that everything in a revolutionary country is good. You would have to be hypocritical or stupid to say that. If you are a true revolutionary, you are supposed to criticize the system to make it better."

He realizes, then, that there is a conflict in what he says, in the necessity to criticize and the lack of outlets for it.

He smiles and shrugs. "This is not a free country," he says finally.

"There is no bourgeois press or bourgeois parliament where a man against the revolution may express himself. In this system the task of a writer is to give voice to a class. To a group." The Young CommunistJORGE LOPEZ is a thin, wiry looking young man, not at all what one expects to find as the editor of the only afternoon paper in Havana.

The offices of Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) are downtown, directly opposite the old Capitol building. The walls are covered with pictures of Che Guevara and other revolutionary heroes, plus pictures of young people marching, rallying, meeting and doing various patriotic deeds. Juventud, after all, is the organ of the Young Communist League, just as the establishment morning paper, Granma, is the organ of the Communist Party.

Lopez was 14 at the time of the revolution, the son of Cuban peasants who had saved their money, moved from the countryside and bought a tiny store (Bodega) in Havana. Once the revolution took place, Lopez, like most Cuban children, began to be schooled in ideology. As the only son, he explains, it was up to him to try to bring his parents around.

"I never convinced my father to give up his business," he says. "I forced him. My parents had the mentality of small proprietors. Yes, they were in favor of the revolution. But not that much. My father had to change his whole way of thinking. A capitalist, no matter how small, is still a capitalist. He had an individualist way of thinking. His own world was the only thing of interest to him. Now he no longer thinks that way. Now he thinks of others."

Lopez spent three years at the University of Havana studying journalism, then two years in the military, where he trained as a pilot.

He then joined the literary campaign in charge of publicity and finally became a leader in the Young Communist League, which led him to his present job as editor of Juventud Rebelde when he was 26.

Lopez, who has been the editor for six years, leads the way to a sofa and offers a visitor a soft drink, with the apology, "It's not as good as Coca-Cola but much more patriotic."

At first Lopez launches into an ideological routine, explaining about the revolution, youth and the objectives of his newspaper.

Chainsmoking Cuban cigarettes, he begins, "The object of this newspaper is to be the conscience of revolutionary youth. We have to reach them, know what they want, understand their aspirations and their hopes. I don't get tired of saying that the Cuban youth thinks that this is their revolution and youth has defined itself with revolution. Our job is to figure out how to transform the epic times of the fighting in the Sierra Maestra to the present and the future. Our work in this sense is educational and a matter of youth orientation."

In Cuba, Lopez explains, "everything is the organ of the government and the party."

But question Lopez on how he can just be a mere puppet of the government while calling himself an editor, and he bristles.

"Every time we write something about a country and they are displeased, the ambassador will present a formal note of protest to our government. That identifies the paper with the party even when it's not accurate, just because our press obeys a general line and prints according to a general directive. Well, no official of the government calls and tells me what to print. The things we print are the perception of the editor."

And then he becomes defensive about the United States.

"You know that the press in capitalist countries are not so independent from the state. They respond to certain special interests. Freedom of the press in the U.S. is theoretical. It responds to the economic and political pressures of the government."

Lopez explains that "we have a very precise concept of the press. We believe that the press responds to class, to social classes. In CUba we respond to the working class, which is in power."

He says that a recent visiting journalist had accused him of not reporting the conflicts between the people and the government.

"I told him," says Lopez, "that we do not have to print what does not exist."

Then, suddenly, as if he has had a complete change of heart, Lopez begins to apologize.

"I think it is the duty of the press to point out wrongs, but of course we don't want to destroy the official. We have started printing critical letters to the editor, though, very recently."

Lopez says his paper has also begun some tentative criticism of officials in government, but "not at the level" we should. We have been incapacitated because, up until now, we have been at the stage of the revolution where anything that was critical was taken as counterrevolutionary. Also, you have to understand that, in the beginning, many men who were placed in official jobs didn't really have the qualifications. A worker in a sugar factory with a fourth grade education would suddenly become the head of the factory when the former head fled. But because of need, the revolution had to place this man there. So it wasn't really fair to criticize them."

For Jorge Lopez, however, the problem of whether or not to criticize government officials is not that simple.

It is not just a matter of ideology or a sense of fairness. It is, interestingly enough, a matter of inexperience.

"Most of what we do doesn't have to do with repression but our incapacity in the press. The lack of habit. We don't print what certain officials do wrong in their policy because we're insufficient in this field. We don't know how to do this. We don't think the press should be social critics. We think the press should reflect what the people think. It won't be the journalist reflecting what he thinks but it will be the press reflecting the feelings of society without having the right to hide what the people in the Assemblies say."

Basically, says Lopez, "I just think we need more practice. But the concept we will not accept is that the press should judge society. In fact, the press should serve society. I don't say we have a perfect system of the press."