Delays cast doubt on Peru lawsuit

Though nearly one year has passed since Peru announced it would sue Yale for the return of precious artifacts excavated from Machu Picchu in the early 1900s, no lawsuit has yet been filed, leading to speculation that Peru’s new government will pursue more negotiations and an amicable settlement instead of what would likely be an unpredictable and costly court battle.

While recently appointed Peruvian embassy officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday, some regional experts and Yale professors close to the new government — now run by a less nationalistic party than that of former President Alejandro Toledo, who originally pursued the lawsuit along with his wife — said they think Peru’s new leaders will likely seek a compromise. But others said they think it is unlikely that the current Peruvian president, Alan Garcia, will drop the issue altogether, since the Peruvian people are insistently calling for the return of the artifacts.

Richard Burger, curator of Yale’s Peabody Museum and one of the University’s primary Machu Picchu archeologists, said the fact that no lawsuit has been filed confirms his long-held belief that Toledo’s threats were made in vain. He said he has reason to believe the new government will agree to allow some artifacts to stay at Yale as long as others return to Peru.

“It’s my impression … that the new government has expressed its desire to continue with a discussion with Yale,” Burger said. “The idea would be some sort of agreement about a collaboration that would benefit both Peru and Yale and satisfy the concerns of both parties.”

On the other hand, Burger said many of the key archeological posts within Peru’s government have not yet been filled — a task that must be completed before the two parties “really can get anywhere,” he said.

Yale President Richard Levin also said the University is hopeful that the University will be better able to reconcile with Peru’s new government.

“There are plenty of conversations with people in Peru,” Levin said. “We’re very eager to settle this in a way that is both constructive for Yale and the Peruvians.”

But not all are convinced that the transition from the Toledo to the Garcia government will mean a dramatic shift in policy. Roger Atwood, a visiting Latin America archeological researcher at Georgetown University and author of a book on stolen artifacts, said he believes there will be no “appreciable change” in Peru’s policy.

“Certainly the new administration will have its priorities, which may be different from those of the Toledo government, but I doubt it will forget all about its claim on Yale,” Atwood said. “I believe there is interest among the Peruvian public, or at least a part of the public, in recovering artifacts from Peru’s ancient past in general and those of Machu Picchu in particular.”

Chris Heaney ’03, who lived in Peru on a Fulbright Scholarship for more than a year to research the dispute, also said the Peruvian people still want their artifacts back.

“The [past] government saw that there was this inequity, [and] they acted upon it,” he said. “Perhaps the Peruvian people know about it because of that last government, but I wouldn’t say they feel any less strongly now.”

But Yale professor Lucy Salazar, another museum curator and Machu Picchu scholar, said she is sure that “the new government’s feeling” is that talks should resume. She said she thinks that since the new Peruvian ambassador to the United States, Felipe Ortiz de Zevallos, was formerly a university president, he “will be more understanding of the position of the university.”

Salazar said she believes that the artifacts in question — discovered in three separate missions to Peru by the Yale scholar Hiram Bingham III, who is credited with discovering Machu Picchu — are still being held legally by the University.

“This was [Bingham’s] understanding of the resolution,” she said. “He went back to Peru many, many times, and he was honored there. [Peru] has a highway named in his name.”

Atwood disagreed. He said no further evidence revealed in recent months has indicated anything other than that Yale is under a legal and moral obligation to acquiesce to Peruvian demands. The issue, Atwood said, is not one of nationalism, but rather the seeking of the artifacts on mere “legal or policy merits.”

Others have suggested that the recent awakening of nationalism in Latin America propelled the lawsuit threats. Wednesday morning, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez delivered a fiercely anti-Bush speech at the United Nations.

“There might be some general resentment over Hiram Bingham’s behavior, which is understandable, but that’s not the same thing as anti-Western bias and certainly nothing like the Chavez kind of antagonism,” Atwood said. “Peruvians soundly rejected [that] in the last presidential elections.”

Susan Stokes, a Yale political science professor who specializes in Latin American politics, said that since “nationalism or patriotism is pretty much a constant across the political spectrum, so left-wing politicians are, in these kinds of countries, as nationalistic as the rightist politicians,” she does not expect a major change of strategy.

“In my contact with people there, it’s always noticeable how uniform the feeling is on this issue that the stuff should go back to Peru — I haven’t encountered anyone of any political percussion who didn’t agree with that,” she said. “I’d be surprised if the Garcia government dropped it, but they could be planning a change of approach, or not push it as hard.”

In August, the majority of the Yale Peabody Museum’s Machu Picchu exhibit closed, but research is still conducted on the artifacts, Burger said. Most recently, DNA was extracted from some of the human bones excavated by Bingham nearly a century ago.

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