HUBER MATOS has had a 20th-century life: he fought in the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in Cuba, found that his ostensibly democracy and independence-minded comrade was delivering the revolution to communism and Soviet exploitation, protested the betrayal, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He could have shortened his term by compromising but chose instead to serve the full 20 years-cruel years. He has now emerged, brave and unblinking, into a harsh political atmosphere in which he does not know how the Cuban people will regain their liberty, but he does know it will have to be by their own exertions, without outside aid. His faith in his people's capacity to control their own fate once again is undimmed.

Release from imprisonment has left Mr. Matos with an acute sense of responsibility for the political prisoners remaining in Cuba. There are more than 1,000 of them in his own openly political category, he believes, plus some thousands of others guilty of such offenses as refusing to fight in Africa, declining to join the communist youth organization, and so forth. Mr. Matos burns with the fear that Americans will take Fidel Castro on his own terms, as an injured party or at least as an acceptable figure to deal with and that they will ignore the plight of the prisoners -- not to speak to the plight of the Cuban people. The best way to help them, Mr. Matos believes, is to speak up loud in their behalf.

In the matter of prisoners, Mr. Matos is entirely persuasive witness. Yet has general strategy for dealing with Cuban communism is unsatisfying. In his view, Fidel Castro could not survive a loosening of the communist system in Cuba, so it makes no sense to offer him trade and other economic concessions in exchange for a promise of domestic liberalization (release of political prisoners, for instance) and moderation in foreign policy. This sort of exchange has been on the minds of many Americans for years. It was the evident premise of the Cuba policy with which Jimmy Carter began his presidency.

It is true that Mr. Castro conspicuously failed to meet Jimmy Carter halfway, thereby embarrassing the president and discrediting the Carter initiative at the same time. Yet the option of negotiations should remain available for testing at a later, more convenient time, if one arises. The justification for it would not be to protect the Castro regime, but rather to induce it to modify some of its most objectionable policies. While the present standoff in Cuban-American relations continues, the Cuban people should know that it is by their own unchosen leader's choice.