The Washington Diplomat / October 1999
By Larry Luxner
Arab, Latin and female -- an unusual, yet helpful demographic mix for Ivonne Abdel-Baki, an accomplished artist and peace negotiator who happens to be Ecuador's first woman ambassador to the United States.
The diplomat, who has shortened her last name to A-Baki "because it's much easier for Americans to pronounce," arrived in Washington last November -- just as Ecuador's economic situation took a turn for the worse.
In 1998, the country's Gross Domestic Product tumbled 6% to $14 billion -- less than its external debt. This year's GDP is expected to shrink another 4.5% before leveling off in 2000. Meanwhile, Ecuador has deferred payments on international obligations and is awaiting the outcome of an agreement with the IMF, which could come as early as Oct. 23.
"We've been having a very difficult time in Ecuador for many years now," A-Baki said during a Sep. 22 interview at the Ecuadorian Embassy on Fifteenth Street. "We have had so many problems and crises, starting with El Niņo. Low oil prices added to the problem, then came the financial crises in Asia, Brazil and Russia. At least the war with Peru is over, thank God."
That's something for which A-Baki, 47, can take at least partial credit.
Born in the sprawling port city of Guayaquil, A-Baki was the daughter of a Druze father and a Christian mother from the Lebanese mountain village of Btater. Like thousands of other Arabs who sought their fortune in South America, her family emigrated to Ecuador at a time when the small banana-exporting country promised a wealth of economic opportunity.
In 1968, after graduating from Guayaquil's Colegio Dolores Baquerizo, the 17-year-old future diplomat traveled to Lebanon for the first time to visit her mother's family.
"I didn't know a word of Arabic when I went there," said A-Baki, who ended up staying in Beirut for 19 years. During most of that time, Lebanon was embroiled in a brutal civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died. She eventually married and had three children -- even serving as Ecuador's honorary consul-general while studying Islamic art at the American University of Beirut. But the continuing violence between Muslim and Christian factions finally forced her to leave the Middle East permanently.
"My husband, Sami Abdel-Baki, was involved in politics, working with NGOs to help people regardless of religion," she said. "When I left, it was because my two sons were finishing high school. I would have loved for them to enter American University, but things were getting too difficult."
A-Baki eventually enrolled at Harvard, where she established the Harvard Foundation for the Arts and continued to paint in her spare time. By the time she graduated in 1993 with a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, A-Baki had decided to dedicate her life to conflict resolution.
The gregarious ambassador -- who today speaks fluent Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, English and German -- was determined to prevent Ecuador from going down the same path of death and destruction as had Lebanon. In so doing, she played a crucial role in bringing her native country and long-time adversary Peru to the negotiating table.
"Ever since I was a child, I was raised with the idea that Peru was our enemy. That's what they always told us in school," she said. "But as I grew older, I began questioning things."
Four years ago, while at Harvard, she and five other Ecuadorians began negotiating with six Peruvian delegates, looking for a way to end the 170-year-old territorial dispute that had already claimed thousands of lives and was costing both countries untold billions of dollars in lost revenue and foreign oil investment.
"We were conducting negotiations very informally, in a non-public setting," she said. "Most of the people who were there are now in key government positions."
One of them is her close friend Jamil Mahuad -- also of Lebanese descent -- who last August was inaugurated president of Ecuador.
"Only a year ago, nobody would have been able to talk about peace with Peru," she explained. "Any president that would have said he wants a peace treaty with Peru would have been considered a traitor. There was no willingness to find a solution."
Eventually, a solution was found, and on Oct. 26, 1998, Mahuad and his Peruvian counterpart, President Alberto Fujimori, signed a peace treaty at an emotional ceremony in Brasilia. The accord gives Peru ownership of a disputed 49-mile stretch of jungle, while granting Ecuador unfettered access to the region through separate navigation and infrastructure agreements. Ecuador also gains the use of one square kilometer of Peruvian territory at Tiwanza, where it plans a monument to soldiers who died in border skirmishes over the years.
"This solution was not 100% good for either Ecuador or Peru. But it was good for both countries in the long run," says A-Baki. "My major focus at the Kennedy School was conflict resolution. I believe that every conflict has many solutions. Both sides must agree to a balanced solution. You can't be completely satisfied, because if one side is, the other is not."
Contrary to what some observers may believe, A-Baki says the fact she's a woman has never held her back as a diplomat.
"Everyone thinks that in Washington, it's tough to be a woman. But for me, I don't feel doors are closed. It's not an issue of gender. I feel very much part of the American system, and I'm comfortable here because I like what I do. I get along with everyone, whether it's at the State Department or the White House. I think people take me more seriously because I'm a woman, not less."
Her Arab background hasn't hurt, either. Earlier this year, A-Baki hosted Yasser Arafat at her official residence when the Palestinian leader was in town for a meeting with President Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Aside from their common Middle Eastern heritage and their families' long friendship, says A-Baki, Arafat was interested in knowing how Ecuador made peace with Peru -- a lesson he hoped to apply in ongoing negotiations with the Israelis.
Lately, A-Baki's time has been consumed not with issues of war and peace, but with the crushing economic problems plaguing Ecuador.
Although the country's per-capita income stands at $1,250 -- considerably higher than that of Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua -- between 60% and 70% of the country's 12 million people live in poverty. Unemployment is estimated at 30% and rising, while the value of Ecuador's currency, the sucre, is falling fast. A year ago, there were 5,500 sucres to the dollar. Today, $1 can buy 11,300 sucres.
Foreign investment would certainly help turn things around. Earlier this year, President Mahuad visited the embassy to officially launch the U.S.-Ecuador Business Council -- a new organization dedicated to improving the business relationship between Washington and Quito.
A-Baki's office and 19 U.S. corporations are backing the effort, including energy giants Arco, Texaco, Enron and Occidental, as well as Continental Airlines, BellSouth, Philip Morris, Kellogg, Microsoft and Great Lakes Dredge & Dock.
The council is being chaired by Einaudi Luigi, former special U.S. envoy to the Peru-Ecuador peace talks; it also has the backing of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, a leading Washington law firm with extensive Latin American lobbying interests.
Yet "because of the critical situation, we are not getting much foreign investment," said A-Baki. "Everything is linked to the IMF agreement. Everything has been put on hold."
A-Baki has such a crazy schedule, she rarely gets time to spend with her three children: 30-year-old Mohammed Manolo, a broker with Merrill Lynch in New York; 28-year-old Harvard graduate Faisal Alejandro, who lives in Ecuador, and 25-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.
"My first identity is as an artist," says the diplomat, whose embassy probably spon-sors more art exhibits and concerts than any other Latin American embassy in Washington. "Art opens the right and left sides of your brain. It helps you see the whole picture. Music, poetry, painting and dancing make you more human. In order to be in politics, you have to be human. And that's what art does for me."
A-Baki, who has three years left on her Washington assignment, says she never thinks about what she'll do after leaving her current job. But A-Baki is quick to answer when asked if she has any advice for young women considering a career in diplomacy.
"You have to take risks and have a sense of humor," she says. "Some people take themselves too seriously. I don't."