When the mayor inaugurated a pretty little garden fronted by a very large statue at the edge of the central Chapultepec Park last summer, it seemed another step forward in his drive to improve the quality of life in this impossible city.
But a quick check on Google might have spared Mayor Marcelo Ebrard from what happened next.
Speaking off the cuff, the mayor praised the statue’s subject — a complete stranger to many Mexico City residents — as “a great political leader, a statesman.”
The statue portrays Heydar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan with a stern hand after the breakup of the Soviet Union. A K.G.B. general and Communist Party boss, who died in 2003, Mr. Aliyev made himself the center of a cult of personality, his image gracing villages across the tiny country.
The admiration has spread since his son, Ilham H. Aliyev, became president nine years ago. Statues have gone up in Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt, Georgia, Romania, and Serbia in homage to the father of modern Azerbaijan.
The Mexico City version, though, is proving to be an uncomfortable fit.
During Mr. Ebrard’s six-year term, this city has aspired to be a progressive New World capital, legalizing abortion and approving same-sex marriage. Often sounding more like the mayor of a Scandinavian capital than of a Latin American megalopolis, Mr. Ebrard has promoted bike-sharing programs and championed urban gardens and buildings constructed with the environment in mind.
“This is a liberal city; this is a city which has nothing to do with anything that could be called a dictatorship,” Mr. Ebrard said in an interview. “We believe in democracy and human rights.”
But the statue — a gift, along with the garden, from Azerbaijan — has put the mayor in a bind. The United States State Department repeatedly pointed out Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record under Mr. Aliyev, which included serious abuses and the suppression of democracy. A few weeks after his bronze figure materialized along Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, newspaper columnists, radio hosts and human rights activists began to press for its removal.
“In Mexico City, on our main avenue, our Champs Élysées, there are statues of Gandhi, Churchill — and Aliyev,” said Denise Dresser, a writer and academic who sits on a citizens’ commission that oversees projects for Chapultepec Park, which is Mexico’s own Central Park. (Gandhi is actually a few hundred paces inside the park, in a more contemplative spot.)
Officials in Mr. Ebrard’s cabinet were tongue-tied. They argued that it was not Mexico’s place to pass judgment on other countries’ leaders. That unleashed a spate of commentary in which writers threw out the names of undesirable strongmen who might one day find a pedestal on Mexico City streets under such reasoning. (Pinochet! Mubarak!)
Mr. Ebrard looked for a way to stem the damage that is tarnishing the end of his term. The mayor, who has been open about his presidential ambitions in 2018, will hand the city over next month to a successor from his own left-wing party, whose landslide win this summer was widely seen as a vote of approval of Mr. Ebrard’s stewardship.
“It’s a mistake, and we should have evaluated that this could be problematic,” Mr. Ebrard said. “Since they said, ‘This is the father of the country, Azerbaijan opened relations with Mexico in 2004, everything’s O.K., we are part of the United Nations, we have elections,’ we didn’t think there would be a problem.”
The Azeri ambassador, Ilgar Mukhtarov, argued that he had done nothing wrong and blamed the country’s longtime enemy, Armenia, for the uproar. When he proposed a Mexico City-Azerbaijan friendship park two years ago, the city government saw no reason to object, not even to the statue. Indeed, the city government proposed the site.
“Everybody knew about this,” Mr. Mukhtarov said. “We signed all the agreements.”
Arguing that Azerbaijan is a struggling young democracy, he continued: “Behind all this movement in Mexico is the strong Armenian lobby. They gave the wrong opinion about Heydar Aliyev.”
A draft proposal slipped by the citizens’ park commission when it was first presented in July 2011. But then members began doing their own research and warned late last year that the statue might cause an uproar. The city, arguing that it had an agreement with Azerbaijan’s embassy, forged ahead anyway.
“I think they thought we were making a mountain out of a molehill,” Ms. Dresser said. “They were clueless and they were ignorant, and we alerted them to the fact that they were clueless and ignorant.”
Indeed, the city government has been happily accepting similar donations from various embassies. The Vietnamese government helped clean up a square in the historic center and burnished it with a statue of Ho Chi Minh, seated in front of a curved wall bearing a quotation.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan has turned adulation into a special kind of kitsch. Last Tuesday in Azerbaijan, for the birthday of Heydar Aliyev, the authorities had more than a million flowers flown in from various countries. They were fashioned into huge and elaborate sculptures, including a mosaic of the face of Mr. Aliyev made of purple, white and gold chrysanthemums. (By Saturday night, dump trucks had backed up to a park to cart away the rotting blossoms.)
In Mexico City, the country has been generous, spending more than $6 million.
Along with the friendship park, complete with the statue framed by a jagged piece of marble that is a map of Azerbaijan, it restored a plaza in the historic center. There it painted the facade of an adjacent church and installed a dancing fountain. But a plaque commemorating the victims of a 1992 massacre in the village of Khojaly during the undeclared war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh brought more trouble.
Nobody in the city government bothered to check the text on the plaque, which calls the massacre a genocide. The small but influential Armenian-Mexican community complained. So did the government of Armenia.
To find a diplomatic solution, Mr. Ebrard has appointed a three-man committee and promised to follow its recommendations, not only about the statue and the plaque but also about how to make decisions a little more transparent.
He has been trying to persuade Mr. Mukhtarov to move the statue to a private space that could become a Mexico-Azerbaijan cultural center. The commission’s recommendation and the Azeri response to Mr. Ebrard’s proposal are expected in the coming days.
Nobody has asked the people who visit the garden, a tranquil retreat of hydrangea and geranium-choked flower beds wedged between busy streets.
“I really don’t know why he is here — maybe because they paid for the park,” said Yohan Islas Hernandez, 34, nodding over at the statue. Mr. Islas walks over from his office to eat his packed lunch under a tree every day. “For Mexicans, there really is no problem,” he said.
Mr. Mukhtarov warned that removing the statue by force would not be interpreted as a friendly move, and he wondered at all the fuss in Mexico. “I think they have other problems to concentrate their minds on more than a monument,” he said. “For us, it is a really big issue.”
"New York Times," November 12, 2012