To Befriend or Not Befriend Cuba? US Takes Up a Loaded Question Icy Relations Thaw a Bit, but Cooperation Is Still Far Away. US YOKE ON CUBA

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THE steaming of US ships -- with Stars and Stripes flapping -- into Havana ports to return Cuban boat people, looks like visible proof that relations between the two antagonistic neighbors would be set for a warming trend.

The United States Coast Guard and Cuban border patrol are now working together to stop Cuban emigration across the Straits of Florida.

But even though both sides cite areas for further cooperation on migration, the basic differences that have kept ties chilly are unchanged.

The US wants the hemisphere's last dictatorship to move toward a democratic, multiparty government and a market economy. The Cuban government says it will never change its one-party system. And the economic reforms it does undertake, officials here insist, will be crafted so they only bolster the the island's socialism.

"We see a clear contradiction between this new spirit of cooperation {on migration} and the hostility" of other aspects of US-Cuban policy, says Ricardo Alarcon, chairman of Cuba's National Assembly, who secretly negotiated with State Department officials the bilateral migration accord announced May 2. "But it is an example that we can have success in finding common ground, perhaps in other areas," he says.

Some subjects off-limits

Still, he and and other officials here say certain basics of the Cuban system will never be discussed. "The {immigration accord} is one step toward more normal relations, and perhaps there could be others" on the environment, drug trafficking, or other "similar bilateral issues," says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the American Department of the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry. "But we will never negotiate on our domestic policy, or take steps in search of a response from the US."

The prevailing tone of US policy towards Cuba was set Sept. 9 when Secretary of State Warren Christopher said any easing of US sanctions against Cuba would be "calibrated" to progress toward democracy and a free-market economy. When he announced the accord with Cuba May 2, President Clinton cited a few areas of communications -- such as an exchange of journalists and news bureaus -- where cooperation might soon be expanded.

The migration accord means that for the first time in 35 years, Cubans will no longer be automatically considered political refugees by the US and granted asylum unless they reach US soil. If picked up by the Coast Guard in the Florida Strait, they won't be brought to the US but will be returned to Cuba.

Detractors of the Clinton administration decision say that change is a tacit agreement that Cuba's 11 million people are not persecuted by the country's Communist system and constitutes a significant international achievement for Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz.

Already two Coast Guard boats have returned 22 Cubans, and a third group is expected back after evidence of attempted alien smuggling by US residents is investigated. The coordination constituted a new level of US-Cuban cooperation, Mr. …

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