Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Mexico City's surreal adventure with Heydar Aliyev.
He's the deceased dictator of Azerbaijan. She's the most beautiful street in Mexico City. Not even $5 million in oil money could keep them together.
After five tumultuous months, a bronze likeness of Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB officer who ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist from 1993 to 2003, was quietly removed from the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City earlier this week.
Aliyev's ousting, which occurred early on Saturday morning behind a phalanx of 300 riot police, was a victory for Mexican protesters who had decried the Azeri leader's reputation on human rights and freedom of the press. For the Mexico City government, it was an embarrassing conclusion to a controversial deal that put the city's monumental space up for sale.
But the most enthusiastic reaction may have come from within Azerbaijan, where monuments to the former president are as common an element of the urban landscape as mailboxes and lampposts, and freedom of expression is tightly restricted.
On Facebook and Twitter, Azeris widely shared photos of Mexican contractors removing the 12-foot-tall statue. "It was exciting news for the democratic portion of society," Azeri journalist and translator Ismayil Jabrayilov writes in an email.
Even 8,000 miles away, the image of the dictator's statue hoisted (if not quite tumbling) down brought back memories of the fall of the Soviet Union. "From the comments on the photos you can see how people are recalling how the statues of Stalin, Lenin were brought down," says Jabrayilov. "They wish to see the destruction of Aliyev's statues in Azerbaijan as well."
Khadija Ismayilova, the country's premier investigative journalist, echoed those thoughts. "It was perceived as a 'start of fall of the dictatorship's movement,'" she tells me. "You could see wishes to see those scenes in Baku."
The Azeri satirist Zamin Haci, sharing the Mexican news report on his Facebook page, recommended watching three times a day for good health.
There were no reports of the incident on the main English-language Azeri news sites. Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index ranks Azerbaijan 162nd out of 179 countries -- lower than Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Current president Ilham Aliyev, Heyder's son and successor, was named "Corruption's Person of the Year," by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, based in Sarajevo and Bucharest.
The younger Aliyev has been eager to export his father's cult of personality. He has commissioned monuments of filial devotion in Kiev, Tblisi, Belgrade and a handful of other countries. In Istanbul, Aliyev's likeness is the centerpiece of an eponymous park.
When the opportunity arose to secure a place on the magnificent Paseo de la Reforma, Ilgar Mukhtarov, Azeri ambassador to Mexico, jumped to commit funding. "I was delighted because I was looking for a place to show off my country," he said at the opening ceremony of "Friendship Park: Mexico-Azerbaijan" in August, standing alongside Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard.
This is another source of frustration to those watching from Azerbaijan, to whom the younger Aliyev's program to increase the elder Aliyev's profile is a waste of government money. "The people are also angered by the fact that so much money is spent for these statues," Jabrayilov explains. "The government could have spent this money on education."
"Who knows how many students could have studied abroad with this amount of money?" asked one Facebook commenter. "It would be better to send 100 students to study abroad instead of erecting this monument," wrote another.
At least one hundred. Azerbaijan spent nearly $6 million on various capital improvements around Mexico City alone, which, according to Ebrard, is more than any of the other 180 diplomatic missions or 45 NGOs have committed toward public space in the capital.
Ebrard, the ambitious, left-leaning mayor of the Mexican capital who is said to be mulling a run for president, thought he had pioneered a clever method to pay for much-needed improvements in public parks. The city had recently accepted a similar proposal from Vietnam that incorporates a statue of Ho Chi Minh. At the ceremony in August, Ebrard lauded Aliyev as a "great political leader, a statesman."
Residents and voices in the Mexican media, including the influential Grupo de Cien, a union of artists and intellectuals, felt differently. Homero Aridjis, the founder of Grupo de Cien, told the L.A. Times in October that the presence of the statue, not far from likenesses of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi, was insulting. "We have enough bad symbols here in Mexico," he told the newspaper. "We don't need to import them from outside."
Another community activist said the gesture was akin to placing a statue of Idi Amin on the National Mall. The U.S. ambassador had a different comparison for the Aliyevs, revealed in the Wikileaks cable dump: the Corleone family, of Godfather fame.
Facing outspoken criticism, Ebrard soon changed his tune. “This is a liberal city; this is a city which has nothing to do with anything that could be called a dictatorship,” he told the New York Times in November. “We believe in democracy and human rights.” He admitted his government should have considered the deal more thoroughly, and said it was a "mistake."
Mukhtarov, meanwhile, blamed the controversy on the "strong Armenian lobby." Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at war since 1991 over a piece of land called Nagorno-Karabakh. This is true to form, says Khadija Ismayilova. "The government here always blames its failures with something related to a foreign enemy," she says.
Naturally, the Azeris were not pleased when the Distrito Federal finally lifted the former president onto a flatbed truck early on Saturday morning, following the recommendation of an advisory commision and in accordance with a City Council decision. Mexico City had signed an agreement to keep the statue in that spot for 99 years; in reality, it lasted less than six months.
But the only news out of Azerbaijan since the statue was removed is the announcement, via Ambassador Mukhtarov, that Mexico had suggested creating an "Azerbaijani Cultural Center." "Our embassy is currently negotiating with the city leadership of Mexico over the issue," News.Az reported. Mexican officials had previously suggested an Azerbaijani cultural center as a new, indoor home for the statue.
In the meantime, the statue of Heydar Aliyev will await a permanent home in a warehouse at the Office of Urban Development. The DF plans to relocate the statue to another public place once the fuss has died down -- presumably one of lesser visibility.
Jose Ramon Amieva, the legal director of Mexico City's government, said he has not yet received a request for reimbursement from Azerbaijan.
Top image: Reuters.