MEXICO CITY — The new, larger-than-life statue at one entrance to Mexico City’s iconic Chapultepec Park may be inert but it’s also proving politically radioactive.
The bronze-colored likeness is of Heydar Aliyev, the late KGB strongman and dictator of Azerbaijan, once part of the former Soviet Union in the distant Caucasus region of Eurasia.
Most Mexicans who pass the statue are unaware of Aliyev’s legacy. Yet a vocal minority has raised an outcry over why a former Soviet-era autocrat is immortalized more prominently here than such moral icons as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., whose statues can be found on far more obscure side streets.
Amid citizen protests, City Hall this week agreed to review its decision to accept a roughly $5 million payment from oil-rich Azerbaijan before erecting the statue and a second monument to commemorate a purported “genocide” next to a colonial church downtown.
It might seem a quaint one-off dispute, but experts say it’s one that has ricocheted around the world, in a dozen cities where Azerbaijani diplomats have paid for stone, bronze and even wax likenesses of Aliyev, who died in 2003.
“They have also paid for a Heydar Aliyev waxwork in Madame Tussauds in London and many other such projects,” said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington that’s dedicated to global cooperation.
Armenia, a bitter rival of Azerbaijan, sent its foreign minister this week to Mexico, where he curtly reminded diplomats that Azerbaijan has “one of the most anti-democratic and repressive regimes in the world.”
Flowerbeds flank the Aliyev statue, and a huge marble map of Azerbaijan serves as a backdrop. Aliyev gazes in stillness on busy Paseo de la Reforma, the European-style boulevard that is the most important thoroughfare in this capital.
A plaque calls Aliyev “a great politician and statesman” and a “shining example of infinite devotion to the homeland and loyalty to the universal ideas of world peace.”
Intellectuals, Jewish leaders and Mexicans of Armenian descent have been vociferous opponents of the Aliyev statue, which was inaugurated Aug. 22.
“Why do you build a park and set up a monument to a person who is not known for his human rights record and call it a park of peace and friendship?” asked Roberto Keoseyan, an Armenian-Mexican lawyer.
Keoseyan said he’d heard people wonder aloud if the capital’s leftist City Hall might someday choose to “build a statue to Osama bin Laden.”
Aliyev, whose son now rules Azerbaijan, took control of what was then a Soviet republic in 1969 while running the local KGB, the state security apparatus. When the Soviet Union crumbled, Aliyev remained in power as president until his death, leaving a legacy of corruption, political suppression and censorship of the media.
Azerbaijan, a once-forgotten republic on the Caspian Sea, has become a pivotal global energy exporter in the past two decades. For three consecutive years last decade, it boasted the world’s fastest growing economy.
While Azerbaijan may be nearly 8,000 miles from Mexico, the two countries share some similarities.
“The relationship of Azerbaijan and Mexico is a rational one. Both are major oil producers. Both want to diversify their economies. Both live in the shadow of big neighbors. Both have drug problems,” said S. Frederick Starr, founder of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a research center affiliated with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
City Hall first signed an agreement with Azerbaijan in mid-2011 as part of a program to seek third parties to help renovate parks and public spaces.
Mexico City is far from the only global metropolis to build a statue to Aliyev. According to Azerbaijani dissidents, statues have also gone up in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, as well as in Istanbul and cities in Egypt, Russia and Iraq.
Azerbaijani Ambassador Ilgar Mukhtarov, in an interview earlier this month with the Excelsior newspaper, blamed ignorance for the protests in Mexico City.
“They don’t really know who Heydar Aliyev is,” Mukhtarov said. “I’m sure that with time they will find more information about him . . . and their opinions will change.”
Depending on one’s outlook, the government in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, is either giving due homage to the father of the nation or rewriting the history of a despotic figure using the deep pockets from its oil wealth.
Following the Soviet breakup in 1991, ethnic Armenians living in the disputed enclave of Nagorno Karabakh sought to break away from Azerbaijan, leading to a war that killed some 30,000 people and displaced 1 million. Despite a cease-fire, skirmishes between the two nations break out regularly.
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian told Mexican diplomats this week that his nation, too, has similarities with Mexico, namely a large diaspora and an eagerness to respect international norms.
Referring to the two monuments in Mexico City, he asked the diplomats if they would “tolerate the attempts of Azerbaijan to replace the rule of law with the rule of oil.”
As an outcry grew louder over the statue and a second monument this week, City Hall installed a three-member independent panel to review whether the projects take into account history and values important to Mexico.
Felipe Leal, the city’s urban development and housing chief, said the panel’s findings would be binding, even if it demands removal of the statue and monument.
“Whatever happens, we must accept and respect (the decision),” he said.
For its second monument in the capital, Azerbaijan helped rebuild the Plaza Tlaxcoaque in the downtown area, constructing a fountain of dancing waters and installing a statue of a woman with uplifted arms. A plaque notes that the statue is for the “genocide” by Armenians in 1992 of ethnic Azeris in the town of Khojaly. It claims some 600 people were killed.
Rosario Mendoza, a wife of a retired policeman, read the plaque aloud to her husband, suddenly looking up and saying, “This is what all the fuss is about.”
Mendoza said she came to inspect the plaza after hearing the complaints on radio talk shows. She noted that the plaza was an eyesore before the renovation.
“It was really ugly. It was abandoned and dirty here before,” she said. “Now, it’s nice.”