FOR decades, Mexico has irritated the United States by maintaining warm ties with Cuba, Washington's Caribbean nemesis.
But that close relationship, coupled with the sturdier links Mexico has forged with the US under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, is giving Mexico a chance to play a key intermediary role in resolving the hemisphere's last cold war-era conflict.
It is a role Mexico would like very much to play, not just because it prefers to see two ``friends'' end a long ideological feud, analysts here say, but also because association with resolution of the conflict would help Mexico put a new shine on its tarnished position in Latin America.
``Mexico is keen on redeveloping its place throughout Latin America, but it needs this kind of role, and association with some diplomatic success, to recuperate its lost position of leadership,'' says Raul Benitez, a professor of international relations at the Ibero-American University here.
A testing of how Mexico's ship might sail in what observers agree are new waters following this month's US-Cuba immigration accord will come Monday when Mexican Foreign Secretary Manuel Tello begins a two-day visit to Havana.
Mr. Tello said this week the visit had been planned for several months and would not address ``Cuba's internal politics,'' which he said ``are up to Cubans to determine and decide.''
But few here believe Tello will forego the opportunity to gauge Cuba's readiness to make some of the democratic and economic moves the US and the rest of the Western Hemisphere hope to see.
Unlike Spain and Argentina, which have recently increased pressure on Cuba to begin democratic reforms, ``Mexico will not offer its opinion, given its historic opposition to interference in a neighboring country's internal affairs,'' says Mr. Benitez, ``but I believe [Tello] will use this opportunity to determine what role Mexico can play.''
For the time being, Cuba is ``off the front burner,'' according to some US sources, given the initial success of the recent US-Cuba accord in stopping the exodus of Cuban refugees, and with a US-led invasion of Haiti seeming imminent.
But the Cuban thorn is still very much in Washington's side, even as observers point to a significant evolution in the dynamics of the three-decade-old conflict. Among the important evidence of this is the growing list of prominent US foreign affairs specialists and policymakers calling for dialogue with Cuba and a gradual lifting of the 32-year-old US economic embargo of the island.
Last week, US Senate Foreign Relations chairman Claiborne Pell and House Foreign Relations leader Lee Hamilton joined other prominent personalities, including former secretary of defense Elliott Richardson and former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, in endorsing a more engaging policy toward Cuba.
``The [US-Cuba] talks that led to the immigration accord were a very good sign that positions on both sides are changing,'' says Joan Caivano of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
``Castro must understand that he will have to continue making concessions to survive,'' she adds, while the Clinton administration ``must understand that the best policy is not one that causes the Cuban people more suffering.''
It is in this context that references to Mexico's intermediary role have grown. Last week, US Ambassador to Mexico James R. Jones told a Mexico City daily that ``if broader contacts were to occur [between the US and Cuba], Mexico could very well have a role to play.''
In another significant move, leaders of the 14 Latin American countries (including Mexico) forming the Group of Rio for the first time urged Cuba at a weekend summit to ``embark on a peaceful transition toward a democratic and pluralistic regime,'' even as they repeated earlier calls for a lifting of the US embargo.
The Latin leaders' statement said they would ``embark on a constructive dialogue with Cuba that contributes to the internal process of democratization.''
Mexico's Tello will be the first Group of Rio leader visiting Havana under this mandate. His will also be the first trip by a high Mexican official since Mexico reversed long-standing policy last month by deciding to accept Cuban refugees who have relatives in Mexico. ``It was a big change for Mexico because it was acknowledgment of Cuba's problems,'' one Mexican official says.
Mexico lost stature in Latin America during the 1980s as a result of polarization over conflicts in Central America, Benitez says. But Mexico's helpful role in bringing peace to El Salvador gave the country a boost, as has the way President Salinas has used passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement to solidify economic ties with southern neighbors. ``Cuba presents another chance to repair that damaged image,'' he adds.