Mexico has a brand new dictator.
Not to worry; this has nothing to do with drug cartels, military brass or even President-Elect Enrique Pena Nieto, the young and charismatic centrist who will take office in December.
This new dictator is a dead man who once ruled with an iron fist on the other side of the globe. He is now immortalized by a statue at the newly-renovated Azerbaijan Park in downtown Mexico City.
His name was Heydar Aliyev, and he presided over Azerbaijan from 1969 -- when the South Caucasus state was still a Soviet Republic -- to 2003, when he passed away and was succeeded by his son Ilham.
From his days as a Communist kingpin through his re-emergence as a modernist Azeri politician, Aliyev was never one to tolerate dissent. The elections he won were widely panned as illegitimate, and he had a long record of suppressing dissent.
Azeris are struggling under the legacy of Aliyev, whose son has adopted the same authoritative style of rule and still reigns as president in the capital city of Baku. Suppression of the media and over-zealous security forces are as problematic as they ever were.
Many Mexicans are wondering why on earth an oft-maligned autocrat should be memorialized in their capital city.
Aliyev’s larger-than-life statue casts him in bronze, sitting in front of a marble cutout of Azerbaijan. The late leader looks out onto a tree-lined sidewalk on Paseo de la Reforma, a central avenue in Mexico City that also boasts various embassies, the Mexican stock exchange building, and the Modern Art Museum.
Surrounding the controversial monument is a newly refurbished green space, for which Azerbaijan recently footed the bill. The country also paid to beautify another park downtown, where a statue of a weeping woman now stands to memorialize the casualties of the 1992 Nagorno-Karabakh War.
The total cost of these efforts was about $5 million.
Call it a global ad campaign.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan has a history of paying for parks -- and thereby gaining the rights to erect monuments -- all around the world. Today, you can find statues of Aliyev in various countries including Iraq, Moldova, Egypt and Romania.
Some Mexican human rights activists refused to accept the new monument; a handful of them marched to the park to stage a protest last week.
“It’s like a personality cult, transferred to Mexico,” said one demonstrator, Homero Aridjis, to the Associated Press.
“It’s as if they brought a dictator from Mars. Are we going to be a center for monuments to dead dictators? Who’s next? Hitler? Stalin?”
His outrage is not shared by everyone.
In fact, the vast majority of passersby are not offended by the statue. That’s because here in Mexico City, nearly 8,000 miles away from Baku, barely anybody knows who Aliyev is.
What residents do know is that Paseo de la Reforma now has a beautiful new public space whose crowning feature happens to be a statue of a foreign leader -- and to them, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Herminio Batalla, who recently brought a newspaper to the park so that he could enjoy the autumn air, told the BBC that he was happy with his surroundings, even though a bronze Aliyev was perched prominently nearby.
"I must admit, I don't know who he is," said Batalla. "But I think it's great they've donated all this money to improve the park."
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