It’s harder to be a moderate in Washington, D.C., than ever before. Nobody knows that better than the veteran centrist Democrat Henry Cuellar, who faces prosecution from the federal government for his work on one of the few remaining bipartisan causes in Texas politics: the glorious nation of Azerbaijan. 

On Friday, the Department of Justice indicted Congressman Cuellar, who represents Laredo, on fourteen counts, including bribery, conspiracy, failure to register as a foreign agent, and money laundering. Cuellar and his wife, Imelda, are alleged to have used a network of shell companies to hide $600,000 in payoffs from a Mexican bank and an Azerbaijani oil company. For those payments, the feds allege, Cuellar offered concrete deliverables, the “quid” for the “quo.” Cuellar is supposed to have promised to pressure Biden administration officials to back off from enforcing regulations on Mexican banks and to have promised the Azerbaijanis he would back them in Congress. Cuellar denies the charges. His office did not respond to an interview request from Texas Monthly, but in a full-throated press release about the indictment, he wrote that “everything [he has] done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas.” 

For a powerful borderland representative who is the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee (Cuellar stepped down after the indictment), allegations of entanglements with a Mexican bank would seem to make a certain amount of sense. But Azerbaijan’s alleged involvement with Cuellar struck many as a curious detail. To many Americans, “Azerbaijan” sounds a bit like one of those fake Eastern European countries that produce the villains in Liam Neeson movies. 

Azerbaijan is, instead, an oil-rich country that won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The nation is a family-run despotism: only two men have run the country since 1993—first Heydar Aliyev, and then his son, Ilham Aliyev. The country’s wealth is tied up in the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, which is also run by the Aliyev family. Billboards with Heydar’s face dot the capital city of Baku, and you are always reminded of the men that rule over you. From 1994 to 2020, the country was locked in a mostly frozen military conflict with neighboring Armenia, which occupied territory claimed by Azerbaijan. The promise of this war loomed over everything in Azerbaijan, and it helped bolster an authoritarian political culture. In February, Ilham Aliyev won 92 percent of the vote in his reelection bid. 

Azerbaijan is rich but unfree: reporters and dissidents are dealt with ruthlessly. Several high-profile journalists have been killed in the country since independence, and criticizing leaders in public is likely to get you dragged away by the police and beaten. Protests are invariably crushed. Azerbaijan is the kind of country that is regularly at odds with organizations including Amnesty International, the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, the European Court of Human Rights, and the World Organisation Against Torture. You know, all the baddies.

The irony, though, is that Uncle Joe’s Department of Justice is cracking down on Cuellar for his work on one of the last remaining issues that basically the entire political spectrum in Texas agrees on: advocacy for the immortal nationhood of the Azerbaijani people. If that sounds like a joke, the joke’s on us. Azerbaijan’s lobbying efforts were a quiet drumbeat in our state for much of the last fifteen years or so. The drumbeat was too soft for almost anyone to hear, and on the face of it, it seems to have accomplished little except getting Cuellar in trouble. But it’s a revealing campaign to explore, because it shows how easy it is for a foreign (and dubious) government to purchase influence in Texas, a state where the political system is already purpose-built to allow rich folks to buy influence. Azerbaijan’s lobbying was purely about the money, not about votes or popular sentiment—there aren’t many Azerbaijani Americans in Texas. If Azerbaijan is buying influence here, everyone is.

I first became curious about the Texas-Azerbaijan connection early in the last decade, when a series of unusual House resolutions popped up in the Legislature. Resolutions are ceremonial: they’re often offered by a lawmaker recognizing a valued constituent or commemorating something like the value of the pecan tree. In 2013, Houston Democrat Hubert Vo, who still serves in the chamber and did not respond to a request for an interview, offered a resolution “commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre in Azerbaijan.” In 2015, Houston Republican Dwayne Bohac offered a resolution “commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Black January events in Azerbaijan.”

The subject matter here was unusual: the House doesn’t normally weigh in on foreign affairs, and when it does, it’s for more traditional candidates: Canada, Israel, Mexico. The resolutions offered clear, uncomplicated takes on some highly contentious history. During Black January, in 1990, Soviet troops launched a bloody crackdown on Azerbaijan’s independence movement. Khojaly is a town where Armenian forces are alleged to have committed war crimes in 1992. The true story of the Khojaly massacre, sometimes called the Khojaly genocide in Azerbaijani accounts, is not something I feel qualified to weigh in on. The Texas House was certainly not qualified to weigh in, let alone to pass a resolution by voice vote in the morning, while hangovers were subsiding.

It was, it turns out, the third consecutive regular session in which the Texas Legislature had paused to remember the Khojaly massacre. Getting the Legislature on record about the most contentious events in Azerbaijan’s history was clearly very important to somebody. Between 2010 and 2021, 28 state legislatures passed resolutions about the Khojaly massacre—a sort of mirror of Armenian American efforts to get American politicians to recognize the Armenian genocide. 

The resolutions were the small, local ends of a transcontinental lobbying operation that has tried to convince Americans that Azerbaijan is a friend worth having. That lobbying operation ran through Houston much of the time, which is home to a collection of nonprofits and an office of SOCAR, which has bankrolled some of the advocacy efforts. Much of the lobbying was conducted by a Houston nonprofit called the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians.

In 2013, the Turquoise Council invited ten members of Congress, including four Texans, on an all-expenses-paid junket to Baku, where they were lavished with gifts by their hosts—“hand-woven carpets, crystal tea sets, silk scarves, and DVDs praising the country’s president.” A Washington Diplomat reporter on the junket wrote a somewhat hallucinatory account, noting that some members of Congress could barely pronounce the name of the country. The funding for the junket was supposed to come from the Council, but it actually came from SOCAR, a violation of congressional rules. (The former head of the Turquoise Council, Kemal Oksuz, was extradited to the U.S. and pleaded guilty to the fraud in 2018.) Cuellar has been on similar junkets.

Congressman Ted Poe, a Republican who represented a district north of Houston until 2019, praised Aliyev’s brutalized fiefdom as “a free and shining light of democracy in the region,” a sentiment the Diplomat said was seconded by fellow Texan Rubén Hinojosa, a Democrat who represented McAllen until 2017. Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee offered more conditional praise: “You live in a very difficult neighborhood,” she told her hosts. “I looked at the map.”

The congressional record in the years of peak lobbying activity shows a flurry of statements from members of Congress either advocating for or against Azerbaijani interests. Members of the California delegation as diverse as Los Angeles Democrat Adam Schiff and Central Valley Republican Devin Nunes, who rarely agreed, would valorize Armenia. (California is home to a large Armenian American population.) In conversation, members of the Texas congressional delegation, including Poe and Houston Democrat Gene Green, would rise to lionize Azerbaijan. Cuellar was always in the mix. On January 24, 2012, the Laredo representative took the floor to laud the nation as an economic powerhouse with a “freely elected president and parliament.” 

In text messages from 2020 released by the feds, Cuellar boasted to an Azerbaijani diplomat about strong action he planned to take in the House—proposing an amendment cutting funding to Armenia in the 2021 appropriations bill—and then limply explained that his effort had failed. “It was going to be ruled out of order so I withdrew,” he messaged ambassador Elin Suleymanov. 

There are countless other examples of Azerbaijani attempts at influence peddling. In 2012, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan, an advocacy group that has received funding from SOCAR, sponsored a breakfast for the Texas delegation at the Republican National Convention. Governor Rick Perry, who had attracted heat from Azerbaijanis earlier that year for comments slamming the ruling party in Turkey, was the honored guest. (Turkey and Azerbaijan are close allies and share ethnic ties.) The next year, Perry invited an Azerbaijani delegation to a barbecue at the Governor’s Mansion on March 6. Before long, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan made Perry’s sister, a lobbyist, its vice president. (Perry’s sister said the post was “ceremonial” and unpaid.)

Admittedly, many of these examples are trivial. You could say that breakfasts and barbecues pale in comparison to what’s often at stake in good old-fashioned domestic political corruption, and you’d be right. House speeches and failed legislative maneuvers don’t add up to much. But you could also argue that Azerbaijan got quite a bit for not much money. For one, the country used positive attention abroad to legitimize the autocracy at home, and it muddied the waters of American discourse. With little effort and expense, the Aliyev regime convinced some important politicians in Texas and the United States—from state legislators to powerful members of Congress—to parrot their talking points and spread them around the political system. In 2015, the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper, ran a sponsored package of articles and columns touting Azerbaijan that featured an op-ed by East Texas congressman Randy Weber. Weber argued in bright, sunshiny language that it was in America’s interests to help advance Azerbaijan’s interests. “This majority Shiite Muslim nation counts Israel among one of its closest allies,” Weber wrote. America must “show that we will be a strong and strategic partner to Azerbaijan for years to come.”

(Neither Sheila Jackson Lee nor Weber responded to requests for an interview.) 

All governments who can afford to do so try to affect public opinion in the United States. Other democracies, however, are at a bit of a disadvantage here. The German government routes its own advocacy through polite and sometimes feckless nonprofits; Malaysia, meanwhile, is free to pay conservative journalists hundreds of thousands of dollars to write paeans to its dictatorship, as it was revealed to have done in 2013. It’s hard to write laws to prohibit such influencing. Our nation’s natural defense is that while it’s cheap to buy an American politician’s kind words, no one can buy our politicians’ loyalty—at the end of the day, they’re purely self-interested. 

In this case, though, Azerbaijan got what it wanted most in the end. After 26 years of preparation, the country launched its great war with Armenia in September 2020. Armed to the teeth with advanced weapons, the country needed the assurance that the great powers—among them the United States, which hosts an influential Armenian diaspora that includes the Kardashian family—would stay out and let them finish the job. We did: the Trump administration kept its mouth shut

In that war, and in a second offensive last year, Azerbaijan smashed friendless Armenia in half. More than a hundred thousand Armenians were displaced, in what Armenia argues is ethnic cleansing. In some regions, Azerbaijan is scraping the earth clean of old Armenian churches and replacing villages with Azerbaijani settlers. The ancient city of Stepanakert was renamed Khankendi. Since the war, Azerbaijani lobbying in the States has abated. The country no longer needs Randy Weber and Rick Perry.

So, a happy ending. Except, perhaps, for Cuellar. If he needs some cheering up, I highly recommend the Azerbaijani military’s catchy heavy metal music videos.