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. Alarcon says.
The US policy change has led to widespread speculation that the Clinton administration might be preparing to further ease bilateral relations -- perhaps even to scuttle the long embargo.
Yet most analysts agree that now is not the best time for the US to completely reverse its Cuba policy. ''The people in power in this town are going to proceed very cautiously,'' says one State Department source, noting the uproar the policy shift caused in the Cuban community in Florida -- a state the administration hopes to win in 1996.
''I don't anticipate any fresh departures, we have to digest this one first.''
Other observers say the change was motivated by domestic political considerations, which at least over the medium term -- through 1996 -- will continue to determine US-Cuban policy.
''If the Cubans are truly hoping this indicates some normalization process, that's just wishful thinking,'' says Gillian Gunn, a Cuba specialist at Georgetown University in Washington.
Settlement of the Guantanamo refugee quagmire was one of the accord's motivations, Ms. Gunn says -- under the agreement almost all the 21,000 refugees there will eventually enter the US -- as were Pentagon concerns about the $1-million-a-day cost of Guantanamo.
But the biggest reason for the US shift was the administration's desire to poke the feather of immigration control into its cap -- especially with California Gov. Pete Wilson, an anti-illegal-alien crusader, who is expected to announce his bid for the Republican presidential nomination shortly. With a Proposition 187-style proposal finding big support in Florida, the administration decided it was time to change tack, says Gunn.
A fresh testing of just where Cuba falls in US political importance should emerge over coming weeks, as Congress takes up hearings on legislation proposed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Illinois to punish foreign companies trading with and investing in Cuba.
The legislation, known widely in Cuba as the ''Helms law,'' is being played up by the Cuban government as fresh evidence of Uncle Sam's ''irrational animosity'' towards Cuba. Speaking to a group of workers at an animal health-research institute outside Havana Tuesday, Alarcon detailed the bill's measures concerning compensation for nationalized property. The legislation, he said, presents in a ''clear and open manner'' the influence of the Cuban-American ''mafia'' in Washington and that community's intentions to ''recolonize'' the island.
But in a private interview with US journalists following the meeting, an affable Alarcon said his government anticipated little impact even if the legislation passes in its harshest form.
''A European businessman even told me, 'In the final analysis, the Helms bill would help you and us,' '' he said. ''The only thing crystal-clear about it is that it means the Americans are not coming.''