Why Is There a Monument to Azerbaijan’s Strongman on Mexico’s Avenue of Heroes?

Azerbaijan's first post-Soviet leader has a statue in Mexico City, and residents aren't very clear on what it's doing there

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Eduardo Verdugo / AP

A man walks past a life-size bronze statue of late Azerbaijan president Heydar Aliyev on Mexico City's main boulevard, Reforma Avenue, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012.

“In recent years, Azerbaijani-Mexican relations have been developing dynamically,” wrote the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, in a recent letter to Mexican President Felipe Calderón on the occasion of Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16. Many Mexicans however, particularly the residents of Mexico City, might be surprised to realize how warm and fuzzy relations are between the two countries — and by the arrival of a new statue in Mexico’s Reforma Boulevard.

(FROM THE MAGAZINESelling Azerbaijan Abroad)

The life-size bronze statue happens to be of Heydar Aliyev, the former ruler of the oil-rich, ex-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan (and the father of Azerbaijan’s current President). It sits in the newly renovated Azerbaijan-Mexico Friendship park in Mexico City — a renovation that Azerbaijan mostly paid for, to the tune of $5 million in total for two parks and two statues in the city. (The second statue, a memorial to the victims of a 1990s massacre that Azerbaijanis describe as a genocide, sits in Tlaxcoaque Park in downtown Mexico City.)

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But the Soviet-style bronze of Aliyev has raised eyebrows among bewildered Mexicans as well as human rights groups. The monument sits on the City’s Reforma Avenue, home to statues of foreign leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi.

For human-rights groups, the placement of Aliyev — who is accused of stifling dissent as the former Soviet republic’s Communist Party boss during the Cold War, and then as President from 1993 to 2003 — among such company is disconcerting, to say the least.

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Human rights group Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy has written to the Mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard expressing their dismay. “Heydar Aliyev was not a noble man that deserves to be honored in public parks and squares,” the open letter reads:

“Having his monument erected in Mexico City is an affront to the Azerbaijanis that suffer at the hands of his corrupt dictatorship and it can only be an insult to Mexicans who value their own nation’s long-established traditions of freedom, human rights and dignity, and justice.”

Statues of the Order of Lenin recipient have popped up in other countries, although Mexico is the first Latin American nation to receive one. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has compiled an interactive map keeping a track of the statues erected in Aliyev’s honor so far, most of which are dotted around Central and Eastern Europe. (Mexico’s special treatment is partially down to the fact that it was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan following its break from the Soviet Union in 1991.)

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Many Mexico City residents, however, appeared to be oblivious to the issue, reports the BBC. “He who pays, gets to choose,” a car washer who works near the park told the broadcaster. “I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea but what can we Mexicans say? We have to bite our tongues, as it’s their money which paid for all this.”

Mayor Erbrard, who has kept quiet so far in the face of the criticism, did note during the unveiling of the statue in August that Mexico City had not received an investment this large from a foreign government before.

Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Mexico said to the AP that the monument was not “intended to improve anybody’s reputation, because the world’s perception of Heydar Aliyev does not require any rescuing.”

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