AFTER eight days of talks, the United States and Cuba reached an agreement at the weekend over how to deal with boat people fleeing the island. President Clinton should build on this opening and begin talks with Cuban officials to foster more-normal relations between Washington and Havana. One possible venue: the hemispheric summit scheduled Dec. 10 and 11 in Miami.
If the results of the immigration talks are narrowly evaluated, Washington came out ahead. Havana's initial demand for talks to cover a broad range of issues was turned back. The Cuban request for the US to allow 100,000 emigres to enter the country annually was changed to a figure of 27,000; the US offered 20,000. The US also agreed to grant entry next year to all Cubans currently on waiting lists for US visas.
This could allow between 25,000 and 27,000 Cubans to enter the US in the next year. And, according to the pact, the Cubans agreed ``to take effective measures in every way it possibly can to prevent unsafe departures using mainly persuasive methods.''
As for the 30,000 refugees either at Guantanamo, in Panama, or still on Coast Guard and Navy ships - under the pact they can remain indefinitely in ``safe havens,'' apply for asylum elsewhere, or return to Cuba and apply for US visas. Yet no one will win until economic and political liberalization comes to Cuba - peacefully.
Although more must be done, hopeful, if small, signs suggest a potential for change in Cuban politics. Last week, Cuba's foreign minister, Roberto Robaina Gonzalez, met in Madrid with three Cuban exiles from Miami, who later said that a political transition for Cuba's regime was possible. In Cuba, where boat people once were publicly scorned as traitors, the government has all but ceased its vilification campaign. Both constitute a more serious recognition, if not a legitimization, of dissent.
At its meeting this weekend in Rio de Janeiro, the 14-member ``Rio Group'' of Latin American nations committed itself to strengthening links with Cuba; it called for a peaceful transition to a democratic, pluralistic regime that respects human rights. It also reiterated its call for the US to lift the economic embargo of Cuba.
Mr. Clinton should match the good sense of his southern neighbors. As a first step, he should lift the sanctions imposed after the latest outpouring of Cuban boat people began. He then should engage Cuba on a broader range of issues.