Mexico row over Azeri leader Heydar Aliyev's statue

By Will Grant
BBC News, Mexico City

Image caption,
Heydar Aliyev is accused by human rights groups of crushing dissent in Azerbaijan

The latest monument in Mexico's capital was erected to commemorate the life of a man who, the plaque reads, was a "shining example of loyalty to the universal ideals of world peace".

Nelson Mandela, perhaps? Martin Luther King, maybe?

No. The life-sized bronze statue now adorning a special garden in Mexico City is of the former president of the oil-rich Azerbaijan and recipient of the Order of Lenin, Heydar Aliyev.

Described by, among others, Human Rights Watch as a leader under whom dissent was crushed, the monument to the late leader sparked increasing controversy since it was unveiled a few weeks ago.

"I particularly dislike the public justification which the Mexico City government has given for the statue," says Andres Lajous, a journalist specialising in urban issues.

"They basically said that it was because the Azerbaijani government gave several million dollars to rebuild the park - the Azerbaijan Park as it's now called - as well as another park downtown.

"But I'm not sure they have ever given us a reason as to why the city should commemorate Heidar Aliyev in the first place."

'Ambitious project'

So far, the government of outgoing Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has not commented on the controversy.

But when Mr Ebrard unveiled the Azerbaijan-Mexico Park earlier this year, he said it was "testament to the will of the two peoples to grow closer".

He also noted that - in 16 years - none of the 180 diplomatic missions or 45 international organisations based in Mexico City had given as much money for public spaces in the capital as Azerbaijan.

In an interview with BBCMundo, Azerbaijan's Ambassador to Mexico, Ilgar Mukhtarov, was keen to stress that the project had been in the pipeline for some time and that "the park areas were both in great need of rescue and renovation".

"We gladly took the opportunity to show our appreciation to the Mexican people by participating in this ambitious urban renewal project," he said.

The ambassador also commented on the funding - an estimated $5m (£3m) - provided by Baku for the parks and the statue.

Image caption,
The plaque describes Aliyev as "a great politician and statesman"

"The money was never directly given to the Mexico City government. This embassy hired the construction companies that in turn renewed both areas, in collaboration with the different authorities of the city," the envoy said.

He added: "I believe that the cost of the gift of the people of Azerbaijan to the people of Mexico is not relevant to their role. The important thing is that they are enjoyed by the citizens of this great city."

Stalinesque control?

However, that does not convince critics like Mr Lajous.

"Basically (the Mexico City government) are being opportunists in the sense that they took the money from Azerbaijan because they know that the political meaning is opaque in Mexico City," he argues.

"It wouldn't be opaque if they put up a statute of George W Bush or, let's say, Hugo Chavez.

"They wouldn't put up a statute of Chavez even if he paid a lot of money. But with Azerbaijan - it's so far away and we know so little about it."

Certainly, most people at the new monument were not aware who President Aliyev was, nor quite why he was being honoured in this way.

"I must admit, I don't know who he is," says Herminio Batalla, as he enjoyed his paper on a park bench. "But I think it's great they've donated all this money to improve the park."

"He who pays, gets to choose," said Jose Romeo, a car washer who works by the park.

"I don't think it's a particularly good idea (to erect a monument to Aliyev) but what can we, Mexicans, say? We have to bite our tongues as it's their money which has paid for all this."

Others lamented that the space wasn't used for someone with more relevance to Mexico's past.

"It's all very well forging closer ties to other countries," says archaeologist Paula Vaya, "but there are people from Mexico who were much more important who aren't represented here."

As I walked away from the monument, there followed what can only be described as a bizarre encounter.

Packing away my camera and microphone, I was approached by a parking attendant - known in Mexico's informal economy as a "viene viene".

He asked me which media outlet I worked for and told me the Azerbaijani embassy were keen to talk to me.

Within minutes, he had called a contact at the embassy and was helping to arrange our interview with the ambassador.

Stalinesque control? Or harmless support from a concerned bystander with an interest in Azerbaijan?

Ambassador Mukhtarov, when asked, assured us it was the latter.

Critics of the government in Baku might see that moment - and the statue to the late president - somewhat differently.