How Azerbaijan Botched Its Effort To Win Friends in Mexico

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 30 2013 4:15 PM

Monumental Mistakes

How Azerbaijan botched its effort to win friends and influence people in Mexico City.

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Osorno was tipped off by members of the park council who were unhappy that the city government had pushed the statue through over their objections. A few minutes of research led him to the New York Times obituary for Aliyev, which he quoted in his first column about the statue:

His authoritarian rule was characterized by contradictory trends. While it undoubtedly brought a measure of stability to Azerbaijan, political life remained turbulent, with frequent reports of coup and assassination attempts against Mr. Aliyev and equally frequent complaints by his opponents about electoral malpractice, human rights abuses and a muzzled press.

Mexico City's intelligentsia is sensitive to such practices, having only recently emerged from a decades-long dictatorship itself. Moreover, Mexico’s capital is a liberal oasis; in 2009 it legalized gay marriage. “This is a city that prides itself on its liberty, and we don't like the symbolism of having Heydar Aliyev in Chapultepec,” he said, referring to the park. “The monument is appalling—in bad taste and in a very strategic position,” on Mexico City's stateliest avenue, near statues of Gandhi and Winston Churchill.

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The controversy grew and soon became a cause célèbre among the city's chattering classes, leading to a steady stream of opinion articles and talk-radio debates. A three-member commission of prominent intellectuals (Osorno being one) was formed to study the matter and in November issued recommendations to remove the Aliyev statue and to change the wording on the Khojaly monument from “genocide” to “massacre.”

Azerbaijan's ambassador to Mexico, Ilgar Mukhtarov, tried to defend the statue—unsuccessfully. In an interview, Mukhtarov claimed that the silent majority of Mexicans was behind him, though he wasn't able to provide evidence of supporters other than the handful of Azerbaijani expats living there. He claimed that the controversy was ginned up by the country's Armenian community, a standard Azerbaijani government trope. (Mexico's Armenian community is tiny and diffuse but well-connected: The former rector of the country's top university, Jose Sarukhan Kermez, is of Armenian descent and has campaigned against the statue. Still, his role was hardly decisive.) He also claimed that the city of Cleveland has a Heydar Aliyev park (not true) and acknowledged that Aliyev's record wasn't perfect, but neither was that of many Mexican presidents who have statues in the city. Aliyev “is our national hero, not Mexico's, and it's our right to recognize our national leader,” Mukhtarov told me.

Azerbaijan's most convincing argument is that a deal is a deal: It's not Azerbaijan's fault that Mexicans didn't pay attention to the statue until after it was built. During my meeting with him, Mukhtarov said that he would not accept any outcome other than the statue staying where it was, and if Mexico City were to remove the monument, the embassy would take the matter to an “international court.” But since the statue was removed early Sunday morning, he seems to have softened his stance, telling the Russian press that he is working with the city to establish an Azeri cultural center, which would be the new home of the statue. The fate of the Khojaly “genocide” memorial is still an open question. 

Today, Aliyev’s monument sits in a warehouse in Mexico City's Department of Housing and Urban Development. A Web video of the statue's removal shows it being unloaded into a dirt yard, strewn with debris and stacks of bricks. It's an ignominious fate for the hero of a nation.

Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.