A monumental controversy in Mexico City

A statue of Azerbaijan’s former ruler is turning some heads in Mexico

Mexico City erects statues to pretty much everyone: from politicians to poets to the former president of Azerbaijan, whose new monument in the Mexican capital is causing controversy, tragicomedy and an international incident half a world away. Azerbaijan claims little in common with Mexico beyond the oil business; most Mexicans couldn’t place the oil-rich former Soviet republic on a map.

But a replica of Heydar Aliyev, the self-described father of the Azerbaijani nation, a strongman who ruled for 34 years—until he became too ill to continue, and died a decade ago—now sits staring toward the cityscape as traffic inches past his perch on the Paseo de la Reforma boulevard. Aliyev takes his place in Mexico City alongside foreign luminaries such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi—and less-likely honourees such as ex-Yugoslavian strongman Josip Broz Tito. “There’s been a lot of permissiveness in erecting monuments to foreign leaders,” says Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.

In a country known for celebrating curious characters—the national university named a gym for Vietnamese Communist Ho Chi Minh—Aliyev might actually be the strangest. His Mexican monument mentions nothing of his KGB and apparatchik past or his checkered human rights record. It does, however, highlight his leading a Soviet mission to Mexico in 1982. Beside it, there is a “Mexico-Azerbaijan Friendship Park” with a campy “Café Baku,” blossoming flower beds and manicured lawns, rare in the pollution-choked city, which often neglects green spaces.

Money explains the monuments, says Sergio Aguayo, professor at the Colegio de México, who finds the monuments farcical. The Azerbaijan Embassy in Mexico says it paid the construction costs and signed a lease stipulating that statue must remain in place for 99 years, part of a strategy to spread its late leader’s cult of personality beyond the Caucuses. The ambassador’s assistant in Mexico, Manuel Luna, told reporters that Mexico risks deteriorating diplomatic relations if the monument were removed. Aguayo laughed at that notion: “Mexico doesn’t have an ambassador in Azerbaijan.”

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