The Washington Diplomat / May 2005
By Larry Luxner
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — Leila Rachid leaned forward, her petite frame dwarfed by the ornate surroundings of her third-floor office in downtown Asunción.
"Being an ambassador, you are in charge of only one country," she told The Washington Diplomat. "It's much easier because you have only one agenda to pursue, always visiting the secretary of state, senior officials of the State Department, members of Congress, or in our case, meeting with the U.S. trade representative. Your agenda is much more focused. But when you are foreign minister, you have the whole world in your hands."
As Paraguay's minister of foreign affairs, Rachid enjoys one of the highest-profile jobs in this isolated, landlocked nation of 5.5 million. She travels frequently, meeting with heads of state from countries as diverse as Chile and Qatar. She's in the news practically every day. Barely literate taxi drivers know her name.
The same is true of Ivonne Baki, who boasts what may be the longest official title in Ecuador: minister of foreign trade, industry, fisheries, integration and competitiveness. As such, more than 1,000 people throughout Ecuador work for her, 400 of them in Quito alone.
"We're now negotiating a free-trade agreement with the United States, and it's important when you know people in Washington," Baki said in a phone interview from Quito."It's also important to understand American culture. The U.S. is our main commercial partner, so for me and this ministry, it's helped a lot that I've lived there before."
Rachid and Baki certainly have a lot in common: Both are women in the male-dominated world of diplomacy, both are of Lebanese origin, both run powerful ministries in their respective, impoverished South American countries, and both were ambassadors in Washington immediately before being named to their current jobs.
"I left Washington in June 2003 because the president-elect, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, put me in charge to coordinate the inaugural ceremony. After that, I was sworn in as foreign minister," said Rachid. The foreign minister spends much of her time these days coordinating Paraguay's foreign policy with that of the other three full-fledged members of the Mercosur trading bloc: Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
A few months ago, Rachid took center stage at an elaborate ceremony in Asunción when Paraguay assumed the rotating six-month presidency of Mercosur. Television cameras were buzzing around the foreign minister as reporters bombarded her with questions.
"Paraguay is a member of the whole integration process. That gives us the opportunity to negotiate with huge countries like India. We've just signed an agreement whereby Paraguay will export more than 30,000 tons of soybean oil to India. This is a new market for us."
She added: "Every country in the world is now involved with the integration process. There is no way to be alone. You need to be integrated with other countries. We in the Western hemisphere are trying to establish trade relations with other regions with whom we have never been in contact."
Rachid's Arab roots haven't hurt either in her quest to expand Paraguay's relations with countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. "A few months ago, we opened an embassy in Beirut for the first time," she told us proudly. "From there, we will establish relations with the whole Middle East."
Being named as an ambassador in Washington has long been viewed as a top prize, a reward for a long and distinguished diplomatic career. But what do ambassadors do once they've "been there and done that?"
Like Rachid, many — including Egypt's Ahmed Maher, Jordan's Marwan Muasher and Slovenia's Dimitrij Rupel — have gone on to become foreign ministers of their countries. Some even become heads of state, while a few returned home to a new political climate and ended up in jail for one reason or another.
Pakistan's Ashraf Jehangir Qazi was named by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to be the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, certainly one of the most dangerous assignments for an ex-ambassador in Washington (Qazi could not be reached for comment). Former Costa Rican Ambassador Jaime Daremblum just recently joined the Hudson Institute as a senior fellow and director of its new Center for Latin American Studies. Albania's former ambassador here, Petrit Bushati, now represents his country in neighboring Serbia and Montenegro.
Others, like Jamaica's Richard Bernal, have assumed senior positions at the regional level. Bernal represented Jamaica in Washington for more than 10 years, from May 1991 to August 2001óan unusually long time for a diplomatic assignment.
"I like to think that's because they were happy with my performance," he said in a phone interview from Kingston, the Jamaican capital. "When I left, I was the most senior ambassador to the OAS [Organization of American States]."
These days, Bernal is the director-general of an entity known as the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery, an advocacy group for the entire English-speaking Caribbean plus the Dominican Republic, Suriname, Haiti and Cuba.
"Our organization does all the technical work which forms the basis for external trade negotiations of the region. Secondly, we help countries come to a common position, and third, we do the actual negotiations where appropriate," he explained.
Bernal, 55, travels back to Washington periodically, though his organization also has offices in Barbados, Geneva, St. Lucia and in Georgetown, Guyana, headquarters of the 15-nation Caribbean community.
"One of our biggest challenges is to ensure that we have enough human and financial resources for the region to negotiate effectively," he said. "Secondly, we must ensure that the small economies of the Caribbean get treatment which is appropriate for their size and level of development. When you're negotiating a free-trade agreement between the United States or Canada and countries like St. Kitts, with only 40,000 people, the differences in size and development must be taken into account."
Odeen Ishmael, Guyana's former ambassador to the United States, is also a veteran diplomat. Representing his country from 1993 to 2003, he was dean of the Latin American diplomatic corps in Washington until he was reassigned to Caracas, Venezuela.
Another former top diplomat in Washington, Brazil's Rubens Barbosa, is now a business consultant in Sao Paulo. His firm, Rubens Barbosa & Associates, works to bring foreign investors to Brazil and helps Brazilian companies considering investments abroad.
"My whole diplomatic career was in the economic and commercial arena, so I decided to have a try in the private sector," said Barbosa, who also served in London and Beijing in addition to Washington. "I always had the idea that when I left the diplomatic service, I would start a new career."
Besides his full-time consulting job, Barbosa is chairman of the Foreign Trade Council of FIESP, a powerful business organization for the state of Sao Paulo, home to 35 million people. He also advises São Paulo's Mercantile and Futures Exchange, known as BMF, and serves on the boards of several huge Brazilian companies, including Banco Ita? and aircraft manufacturer Embraer.
Barbosa, speaking to us by phone from São Paulo, said that even though he was appointed by former conservative President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil's new leftist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, decided to keep him in Washington.
"All the fear abroad about the new government has proven to be baseless," Barbosa said. "They have honored all the contracts that the previous government had, they're fighting inflation, they're keeping fiscal restrictions and from the investment point of view, they have managed to re-stabilize the country."
He added: "I miss Washington. It's the decision-making center of the world, and I was not only honored but privileged to serve as Brazil's ambassador there."
Across the Atlantic, Dimitrij Rupel, foreign minister of Slovenia, is outspoken in his support of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is currently under the chairmanship of Slovenia. The former ambassador warns that the OSCE, which monitors human rights violations and was once known as the Helsinki commission, is becoming irrelevant, and he is urging the United States to rescue the OSCE from decline.
"The future of this organization and what it stands for should not be taken for granted," Rupel recently told the Washington Times. "We must avoid the reopening of divisions in Europe and any backsliding of the progress made in recent years. The OSCE is absolutely instrumental in that process."
Another diplomat with a keen interest in Europe is Gunther Burghardt, former head of the European Union Delegation in Washington. Burghardt recently joined the Washington law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw as head of its Brussels office. The firm is one of several that have expanded operations to Europe to manage transatlantic trade issues.
"My practice consists of covering the firm's expertise in antitrust, global trade and, in particular, government relations," he told us. "Brussels will have a growing importance because of the role of the EU decision-making process concentrated there — the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament as well as the EU Court of Justice close by in Luxembourg."
At the law firm, Burghardt has joined a number of well-known former U.S. and European government officials, such as former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor.
"Political relations have recently improved after the worst crisis ever during the past four years, with the huge trade relationship acting as a stabilizer, always tested by this or that bilateral issue, such as the Boeing-Airbus spat right now," Burghardt said. "It's a great experience to be able to pursue the increasingly important U.S.-EU transatlantic regulatory, economic, trade and political agenda, and to continue using my former professional experience and contacts for the purpose of advancing our transatlantic partnership, strategically the most important bilateral relationship in the world."
One of Washington's most memorable ambassadors in recent years was Ljubica Z. Acevska of Macedonia, a small Balkan country of 2.2 million that until recently was known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Known for her penchant for purple, Acevska was named Macedonia's top diplomat here shortly after her country's independence in 1992.
After leaving her post a few years ago, Acevska was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, later working as a business consultant.
"Right now, my major focus is to develop the foundation I started: Pencils for Kids International," she told us. "PfK is an organization that provides school supplies to elementary schools worldwide. I believe that education is the key factor to so much, but we have to start early. Our motto is 'Peace through Pencils, not Punches.'"
Acevska, who insisted that "nothing compares to being Macedonia's first ambassador to the United States," has some advice to offer would-be diplomats: "If you can succeed in being an ambassador from your country to the United States of America, you can succeed in anything else."