By Jim Snyder - 07/31/08 06:26 PM EDT
On the surface it sounds like the makings of a detective story: prime coastal property, a rich developer with big plans and allegations of evidence-tampering by government officials.
But a dispute between New York City resident Renee Levy and her two brothers and the government of Peru over the historical significance of property the family owns could turn out to have real-life implications for the new free trade deal between Peru and the United States.
Levy grew up in Lima, but she attended American universities and became a U.S. citizen in 2001. Her two brothers still live in Peru.
After a decade of legal disputes, the family was finally set to develop the property. But last October, the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared it to be part of a national historical and archeological site, apparently in a reversal of earlier rulings.
Levy says the decision effectively blocks any opportunity for development. Yet the government has not offered her family any compensation for the property. That could violate the new free trade deal, which protects American investments in Peru.
The institute’s latest decree claimed the property was the location of a battle in the 1879 War of the Pacific, in which Peru and Bolivia fought against Chile. Previously, the institute had determined that the site held no significant historical value.
Levy claims there has never been any evidence that the site was the location for any battle in that war. So, Levy claims, the government tried to plant some.
She and two lobbyists she hired have shown congressional offices a Peruvian police report that describes the arrest of four employees from the culture institute. Witnesses allege the employees planted evidence of the property’s historical significance.
The four employees of the institute took pictures of themselves unearthing some cloth and other objects, but the witnesses apparently told police that the employees had not, in fact, dug up the objects, according to a summary provided to The Hill by Myles Frechette, a former ambassador to Colombia who is working with Levy.
He said the case has not been pursued. Joseph Blatchford, a trade lawyer and lobbyist and founder of Summit Communications, is also working with the Levy family.
The land in question is adjacent to Solar Hill, which is a national monument.
But Levy said the site was purchased from the town council of Chorillos with the understanding it would be developed.
“That was the way it was bought,” she said. “But once we had the blueprints, they immediately challenged the sale.”
Levy said that when her family bought the property, few investors were willing to develop land around Lima. Now, however, as the country’s government and economy have stabilized, the property is among the few acres along the coast near Lima that have not been developed, Levy said.
The problems began two years after the purchase, when a new mayor sought to block the deal, claiming the bidding process was fraudulent and the site held historical significance.
That set off years of legal battles that Levy and her brothers eventually won, only to be blocked by the recent decision by the National Institute of Culture.
A congressional letter sent last month to Peruvian President Alan Garcia Perez picks up on that apparent discrepancy.
“Between 2004 and 2007, the National Institute of Culture declared and maintained that there were ‘no archeological remains’ on the Levy land,” wrote Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).
The decision by the institute not only “rendered the property worthless for development as a residential complex which would create jobs and promote tourism, but no compensation has been offered to the owners for this arbitrary, and possibly illegal, taking of the property.”
The members say the institute’s decree may violate the “spirit and the letter” of the free trade agreement.
Previously, Maloney had pressed the case to Everett Eissenstat, the assistant U.S. trade representative for the Americas, and to Michael McKinley, the American ambassador to Peru. “I am deeply troubled that the Peruvian government appears to be overturning my constituent’s property rights by administrative fiat despite a court ruling upholding her position,” Maloney wrote in a May letter to McKinley.
In a separate letter to Eissenstat, Maloney also wrote that the issue raised concerns about how the Peru trade deal would be implemented.
Officials with the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office were in Geneva this week for trade talks and did not respond to a request for comment.
The Garcia administration has submitted legislation to declare the land historic, but the legislature blocked the bill.
A call to the Peruvian embassy was not returned.
In a response to Maloney, James Nealon, the deputy chief of mission to Peru, wrote that the embassy has raised the issue with the Institute of National Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism and the Foreign Ministry.
“At this point, we understand that Ms. Levy and her brothers in Peru are pursuing legal redress in the courts. Those legal proceedings have not yet concluded. I can assure you we will continue to follow this matter and will consider further steps to engage the Peruvian government, as appropriate, as the circumstances evolve.”