Saudi Aramco World / March-April 2000
By Larry Luxner
When the presidents of Ecuador and Peru signed their historic peace accord in late 1998 -- ending 170 years of Amazon border hostilities -- they had behind-the-scenes help from an accomplished diplomat of Arab descent who learned all about conflict resolution on the streets of Beirut.
Ivonne Abdel-Baki, Ecuador's first female envoy to the United States, is also one of the few Arab women to have ever served as a foreign ambassador in Washington. The 47-year-old diplomat, who has shortened her last name to A-Baki because "it's much easier for Americans to pronounce," arrived here in November 1998 -- just as Ecuador began sliding into its worst economic crisis of the 20th century.
"We have had so many problems, starting with El Niņo," A-Baki said in a recent interview. "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 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, which converted to Catholicism, 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 16-year-old future diplomat traveled to Lebanon for the first time to visit her mother's family. She married only a year later.
"I didn't know a word of Arabic when I went there," said A-Baki, who ended up staying in Beirut for 19 years and now speaks Arabic fluently. During most of that time, Lebanon was embroiled in a brutal civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died. In between raising three children and studying Islamic art at the American University of Beirut, she served as Ecuador's honorary consul-general to Lebanon. But the continuing violence between Muslims 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 in addition to Spanish and Arabic also speaks fluent French, 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 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."
Five years ago, while at Harvard, she and five other Ecuadorians began negotiating with six Peruvian delegates, looking for a way to end a 19th-century 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.
"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."
But a solution was found, and on Oct. 26, 1998, former Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad -- also of Lebanese descent -- and his Peruvian counterpart, President Alberto Fujimori, signed a peace treaty at an emotional ceremony in Brazil.
A-Baki says the fact she's female 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. I feel very much part of the American system, and I'm comfortable here because I like what I do."
Her Arab background hasn't hurt, either. In February 1999, A-Baki hosted Yasser Arafat at her official residence when the Palestinian leader was in town. 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.
A-Baki has such a crazy schedule, she rarely gets time to spend with her three children: 30-year-old Mohammed Manolo, a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch in New York; 28-year-old Harvard graduate Faisal Alejandro, who lives in Ecuador, and 24-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 sponsors 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, 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."