The Washington Diplomat / September 2002
By Larry Luxner
Ivonne Abdel-Baki, Ecuador's gregarious, hyperactive ambassador to the United States for the past four years, has decided to run for president of Ecuador.
If she wins the Oct. 20 presidential election, A-Baki -- as she calls herself -- would become the South American country's first female head of state.
"I have a strong possibility of winning," she told The Washington Diplomat two weeks prior to announcing her candidacy Aug. 18. "I think the people are ready for me. They want hope, a fresh start, a new person. They'll vote for anyone who's different."
A-Baki is definitely different. Born in the sprawling port city of Guayaquil, she had never been to Lebanon -- the native land of her parents -- until the age of 17. Once there, she quickly learned Arabic and remained in Beirut for 19 years, right through the country's brutal civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died. During that time, A-Baki served as Ecuador's honorary consul-general and studied Islamic art at the American University of Beirut.
A-Baki eventually enrolled at Harvard, where she established the Harvard Foundation for the Arts and continued to paint in her spare time. She graduated in 1993 with a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Through it all, she managed to raise three children with her husband, Sami Abdel-Baki, a real-estate developer and Druze leader who still lives in Lebanon.
Contrary to what many people think, says the 49-year-old ambassador, "we are not separated. He works for his country, which he adores, and I work for my country, which I adore."
It's hard to imagine A-Baki sitting still for a moment. During our interview, she was interrupted constantly by calls on her two cellphones, and often ended up chattering away excitedly in Spanish, English or Arabic. She talks faster than most people can write, and exudes so much enthusiasm about the possibility of running Ecuador that one begins to wonder how she can possibly lose -- despite the fact that she's competing against nine other candidates, including two former presidents.
"I haven't slept in five days," said A-Baki, as she showed off a dozen glossy magazine articles from Ecuador and Lebanon speculating on her upcoming candidacy. "This is not an overnight decision. I've been thinking about it for a long time. I always felt I could help Ecuador more from the outside, which I've been doing for the past 25 years. But I realize now that even if I stayed here longer, it's not going to make a difference. I've been here four years and have had nine ministers of finance and economy."
For all her enthusiasm, Ecuador remains one of Latin America's most corrupt, unstable countries. Per-capita income is around $1,200 -- which makes it better off economically than Bolivia, Honduras or Paraguay -- but 70% of the labor force is either unemployed or underemployed.
A few years ago, Ecuador's currency, the sucre, was scrapped after its value had plummeted to 25,000 to the dollar. The country now uses the U.S. dollar, and inflation has fallen from 120% to only 20%.
"We are fine for the moment because oil prices are still high. But our No. 1 source of income should be tourism," A-Baki said. "I want to generate jobs by bringing in investment. And to do that, we need a judicial system that works."
Assisting the ambassador in her presidential bid is James Carville, a well-known political strategist who's advised everyone from Bill Clinton to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Her point man for communications is Mark McKinnon. And all her surveys and opinion polls are being handled by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc., a Washington firm that's worked with political candidates in 40 countries including Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Poland and Serbia.
Despite her first-rate team of advisors, A-Baki won't have an easy time of it.
"All those who are running have records, including [former presidents] Rodrigo Borja and Osvaldo Hurtado," she said, noting that 86% of the voters are still undecided. "They are all very good, but they did what they had to do and didn't change anything."
While her Arab origin isn't likely to work against her in Ecuador, her close relationship with former president Jamil Mahuad might.
Mahuad was elected following one of the biggest scandals in Ecuador's history. In early 1997, former president Abdalá Bucarám -- impeached after only six months in office -- was charged with bribery, nepotism and misappropriation of millions of dollars worth of public funds. Vice President Rosalia Arteaga was appointed acting president but served only two days before being replaced by Fabián Alarcón, then-president of Congress. Mahuad, who like A-Baki is of Lebanese descent, promised to rebuild the country and put the economy back on track.
But his decision to replace the sucre with the dollar was highly unpopular, and his attempts to privatize the phone monopoly, the electricity company and other state-owned entities failed in the wake of further corruption scandals.
"Like most Ecuadoreans, I also believed in him, but I was disappointed," says A-Baki, who helped Mahuad negotiate Ecuador's peace treaty with Peru in 1998 after 170 years of border hostilities. "The current president, Gustavo Noboa, asked me to stay on in Washington. That's why now, I've decided that I can from the inside what I cannot do anymore from outside."
As ambassador, A-Baki made many in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and jokes that she's "taken half the Senate to Ecuador" on fact-finding trips. She also founded the Galapagos Foundation for the Environment as well as the U.S.-Ecuador Business Council to promote U.S. investment in her country.
"I can call people here because I have a lot of friends in Washington," she said, insisting that she'll enjoy strong support from Ecuador's indigenous community. "I've always believed in their message, and I always asked the president to put indigenous people in the cabinet. I think they should be more involved in the issues and in government."
If she becomes president, says A-Baki, she'll make the reduction of unemployment her top priority.
"Democracy is only a word. You have to apply it," she said. "The No. 1 issue in Ecuador is employment. People want to feel that they have an identity, that they are respected, that they are somebody. If people don't have jobs, how can they feel free? The second pillar is security for the individual and for property. And the third pillar is education. And we don't have these three pillars in Ecuador."
She adds that "we have to create a strong middle class in Ecuador. If you don't have one, you can't have a strong economy."
A-Baki has such a crazy schedule, she rarely gets time to spend with her three children: 32-year-old Mohammed Manolo, a broker with Merrill Lynch in New York; 30-year-old Harvard graduate Faisal Alejandro, who lives in Ecuador, and 27-year-old Tatiana, who like her mother is an accomplished artist.
In fact, one of Tatiana's paintings hangs in A-Baki's office, as do many of the ambassador's own works, including a chaotic 1994 masterpiece she entitled "Bureaucracy" after the "vicious circle of bureaucracy" found throughout government offices in Latin America.
No doubt A-Baki will be ecstatic if she wins the presidency of her country and becomes part of the very bureaucracy she hopes to reform.
But even if she loses, it won't be the end of the world for this unusual woman, who doesn't give up easily.
As she told The Washington Diplomat in October 1999, only a year after becoming ambassador: "You have to take risks and have a sense of humor. Some people take themselves too seriously. I don't."