Azerbaijan Leader's Statue In Mexico Draws Protests

In Mexico City's most prominent tree-lined park, you can find statues to such international heroes as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and now Heydar Aliyev. He's the Soviet-era autocrat of Azerbaijan. Its government paid for the park's latest statue and restoration of a nearby plaza. The gilded gift has upset many in the capital and is causing headaches for Mexico City's outgoing mayor.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the most prominent park in Mexico City, you can find statues to international heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and now Heydar Aliyev. He was a Soviet-era autocrat in Central Asia. The late leader's government paid for the statue and restoration of a nearby plaza. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, that's created quite a stir in the Mexican capital.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Strolling through Mexico City's Chapultepec Park is one of the few green pleasures in this concrete mega-metropolis. So when the corner of a busy intersection was covered in marble and topped with a huge golden statue, heads turned.

RIGOBERTO SAUCEDO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Rigoberto Saucedo passed by the intersection on a recent Sunday. He says it's not right to put up a statue of a dictator in Mexico, a country that proclaims its freedom. Like most passersby, Saucedo had never heard of Aliyev until the statue went up in August and the controversy spread in the media. Ambrosio Ariza came by to see what all the fuss was about and take some pictures. He wasn't thrilled either.

AMBROSIO ARIZA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He said there are many great Mexican heroes, why put up a statue up to this man? So how did this one-time KGB insider and controversial leader of a country thousands of miles away get a huge statute in Mexico City? The head of Urban Development for the city, Felipe Leal, says it was simple.

FELIPE LEAL: We made a mistake. We don't research enough, no?

KAHN: Leal says no one looked into Aliyev's background or questioned the wording on the plaque in front of the statue that touts him as a shining example of universal ideas and world peace.

Aliyev ruled Azerbaijan from 1969 through the Soviet break-up, then again headed the country in 1993 until his death ten years later. Worldwide, he's better remembered for a legacy of corruption and one-party rule. Leal says the Azerbaijan government's offer to spruce up the park and another dilapidated downtown plaza seemed like a good deal at the time. He says the mayor has now appointed a three-member panel to decide what to do about the statue.

LEAL: We need to be sensible about the feelings of the Mexico citizens, no? They don't want this sculpture in that place.

KAHN: Having a statue of a man with such a questionable human rights record in a city known as one of the most liberal in the hemisphere, puts Mexico City's mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, in a sticky situation. Ebrard is often talked about as a leading presidential candidate.

Yet he isn't the first head of a city tackling this problem. Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says recently Azerbaijan, rich with oil wealth, has gone on a worldwide public relations campaign.

THOMAS DE WAAL: They've paid for cultural festivals, parks, you name it right across the world and particularly in places where there is a big Armenian community to try and match their enemies, the Armenians.

KAHN: Mexico doesn't have a large Armenian population, but in a press release, Azerbaijan's ambassador to Mexico accused the small yet vocal Armenian community for the uproar. Urban development head Felipe Leal says it's unfortunate that Mexico City got caught up in this international conflict.

LEAL: Armenian and Azerbaijan problem, it's not part of Mexico policies. It's not our problem.

KAHN: He says maybe the two countries can work this out somewhere else, maybe the United Nations - but not in Chapultepec Park.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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