THE little Cuban fishing port of Cojimar is best known as the setting for Hemingway's classic, "The Old Man and the Sea."
But a few weeks ago, an incident took place there that is perhaps one of the most significant of Fidel Castro's reign.
A rescue boat, American-based and crewed by Cuban Americans, was bent on extricating Cuban refugees wanting to flee President Castro's increasingly unhappy land. Hovering offshore, the American boat was surprised by a Cuban coastal patrol vessel. Such confrontations are not unusual but rarely end, as this one did, in violence. In this case, instead of warning the rescue boat off, or even boarding it, the Cuban vessel shot at it, killing several crew members and wounding more.
As the Cuban boat headed for port with the dead and the wounded, the people of Cojimar swarmed out in protest. The police, usually speedily efficient in putting down rebellion against authority, were called.
Then two things of remarkable significance took place: The crowds did not back down. The police did not open fire. The people were demonstrating against official brutality - against the unnecessary killing of would-be rescuers. Such a reaction is a somber signal for rulers who hold power by force. Often it is the beginning of the end. Apparently it was so somber for Castro that he publicly apologized to the people of Cojimar for the injustice that had been done.
The people of Cuba are plunging ever deeper into economic misery, and Castro appears ever more desperate. A mark of that desperation is the recent Castro decision to make it legal for Cubans to hold dollars and to attract an inflow of dollars from Cuban Americans who are now encouraged to visit in large numbers. This reversal of policy is necessary because Cuba's coffers are barren of hard currency. Now Cubans who can hold dollars legally can use them in special dollar shops hitherto reserved for tourist s, diplomats, and high-ranking bureaucrats. The dollars will flow into the government treasury.
Some Cuban Americans say this could net Castro a billion dollars a year. Says one: "The US government may have an embargo on trade with Cuba, but if I can go to Havana and leave a few thousand dollars with my ailing mother, you think I'm not going to do it?"
There may be a short-term gain for Castro, alleviatingthe country's hard-currency crunch, but it also may be a political time bomb. It will create a dual society, favoring those with relatives in the United States who can get them dollars, but disadvantaging those Castro "loyalists" who must labor on at set salaries without access to dollars. An army colonel in Cuba earns between 600 and 700 pesos a month. At the exchange rate of 60 pesos to a dollar, he is getting the equivalent of $10 a month. How can he compete with a Cuban with relatives in the US who now may be able to collect, say, $100 a month from Miami?
Ironically, this desperate Castro bid to accumulate dollars will harm the party stalwarts but help Cubans with relatives in the US who often are opponents of Castro.
There is some talk of the government introducing a dual exchange rate to help pensioners and those on the government payroll, but few economists have much faith in such a system. "All this," says one leading expert on Cuba, "is a mark of Castro's desperation. It will not save him. It will undermine social discipline in Cuba. It is the bursting of the dike."
Cuba could be coming up on the list of international crisis spots.