Amid the bustle of Army and Navy patrols, the Big Baby, an old shrimp boat from Galveston, Tex., was loading to capacity on quay one.
Close to 200 men, women and children, Cubans who with thousands of other had spent days hiding inside the Peruvian Embassy, jammed on board to leave for the United States.
Ahead of them was a 12-hour trip to Miami, much of it through the cold night, over choppy waters. There was neither room, nor permission, to take extra clothes or luggage.
It was through this same small industrial port of Mariel, 30 miles west of Havana, that the Soviet Union brought its missiles into Cuba in 1962, leading to the crisis that brought the United States and the Cuban-Soviet alliance to the brink of war.
Now nearly two decades later, the human drama of Cuba continues, involving those who passionately support and those who bitterly oppose Fidel Castro's communist revolution.
Both sides clashed again this morning at Havana airport where an Iberia jumbo jet chartered by the Spanish government was preparing to take 380 refugees to Madrid.
Outside the departure hall groups of government supporters beat, kicked and insulted those seeking refuge. Nearly-hysterical men and women hurled eggs, handbags and all their hatred at the "traitors."
Here in the Bay of Mariel, the scene was eerie and silent. The men on board, most of them in their twenties and thirties, started at soldiers of the same age. There were no gestures. No one said a word. Dozens of children sat quietly on their mothers' laps in the hot afternoon sun.
Pointing to the Cuban flag the refugees had hoisted onto the rafts, a local reporter asked a military officer, "Do you allow that?"
"Of course," replied the officer. "They are also Cubans, aren't they?"
Earlier in the day a boat load of about 30 refugees had left and 13 more yachts, most of them from Miami, were anchored here waiting for the buses that would brink new passengers.
Every Cuban with government exit documents, whether they had been processed by an embassy or not, would be allowed to board, a Cuban official said.
Ildo Romero, who represented the Workers Alliance of the Cuban exile community in Miami and had come on the Big Baby as coordinator, said: "If these trips go well, hundreds of boats will come from Miami. We're getting ready for that."
For many of the 200 aboard there was standing room only. The Cuban government had checked the safety of the vessel and permitted the heavy load.
As the radio clearance came for departure and ropes were hauled aboard, some of the passengers started softly crying.
As the Big Baby pulled away, those on board started waving silently but frantically. On the shore, the military and the reporters stood immobile.
"I have never seen Cubans not showing their emotions before," said a foreigner based here.
Then the shrimp boat turned and headed for the open sea.
"I hope they all drown," murmured a young soldier.
"Don't say that," replied an older officer. "You don't know what's still ahead of them."