AFTER a rocky start, relations between the United States and Peru's new government - dominated by the drug issue - appear to be getting back on track. The two countries have set up a working group in Lima, the Peruvian capital, to come up with a joint antidrug strategy. At the request of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, economist Hernando de Soto is working out details of Peru's part of the plan, consulting here earlier this month with administration officials. Mr. de Soto expects to return next week.
But time is short, at least under the US timetable. Congress needs to allocate its fiscal year 1991 foreign aid by January, so it can be disbursed. The US has offered Peru $39 million in military aid in fiscal 1991, but after Mr. Fujimori's rejection of the 1990 military aid of $36 million, the future of US aid is unclear.
Still, John Walters, chief of staff at the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the US is ``fairly optimistic that we can reach an agreement.'' Both the US and Peru agree on the need for a comprehensive approach to reducing Peru's coca-leaf cultivation - one that includes both the ``carrot'' of economic development and the ``stick'' of coca eradication.
The difference is in emphasis. In a recent speech laying out his antidrug plan, Fujimori spoke almost exclusively of a long-term effort to encourage coca farmers to switch to other crops. He included only one short passage on the need to eradicate illegal crops and to control the supply of coca paste.
The US publicly supports crop substitution, but also stresses Peru must, in the meantime, show real progress in fighting the growth of coca cultivation if it is to keep receiving US aid. This is in part linked to the annual US process of ``certifying'' countries as cooperative or noncooperative with the US antidrug program.
Fujimori turned down the 1990 US aid offer, which would have been the first major influx of US military aid for Peru, because it did not include enough for economic development. In his speech, Fujimori also spoke of his fear of sparking a full-fledged civil war between the military and coca growers.
Peter Hakim, staff director at the Interamerican Dialogue, cites three other reasons why Fujimori rejected the aid: fear of a nationalist backlash; concern that cracking down on coca growth will only alienate peasant farmers; and expansion of the insurgent the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, Peru's Maoist insurgent's power base. Mr. Hakim also says there were worries among civilian politicians that boosting the military with US aid would give it greater power than it already has.
Despite Peru's misgivings, however, Peruvian diplomats say their government has not ruled out taking US military aid.
United States officials play down news reports that portrayed Fujimori's September rejection of US aid as a sharp break with the US. Peruvian and US officials both blame bad timing - the coincidence of the US fiscal year with the beginning of Fujimori's administration - as a major factor in the decision. Fujimori took office July 28 and had only until the end of the the US fiscal year in September to decide on military aid.
Whether his decision forced a rethinking of US strategy remains to be seen. In February, at a drug summit with Andean leaders, President Bush made greater involvement by the three countries' military forces a centerpiece of joint antidrug strategy.
Now, US officials say that the money for Peru earmarked as ``military'' - and meant to include training and equipment of the Peruvian Army for operations in the Upper Huallaga Valley, Peru's coca heartland - does not have to go to the military per se. It could go to the Peruvian police who work with US drug agents.
Walters says there has been confusion in both countries, and ``a tendency for some suspicions,'' about the nature of the US strategy for Peru. ``There were concerns that we were offering only `enforcement assistance' to the police or military,'' he says.
But the US ``proposed enforcement assistance as a means of reducing demand for coca leaf and disrupting trafficking,'' he adds. Such security is vital ``to make economic assistance work.''