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Ecuador’s Ivonne A-Baki headed to Paris: ‘I did what I came here to do’

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Ecuador’s Ivonne A-Baki headed to Paris: ‘I did what I came here to do’
Ivonne A-Baki, Ecuador's former ambassador here, poses at DC's Georgetown Club shortly before her departure to Paris with Arabic and English editions of her autobiography, My Destiny. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Ivonne Juez Abuchacra de Baki, a product of two countries—Ecuador and Lebanon—has made her mark as both an artist and diplomat.

In 1998, she became the first woman in Ecuadorian history to represent her country in Washington as ambassador, and four years later, the first woman ever to run for president. A-Baki, as she is commonly known, lived through Lebanon’s brutal 1975-90 civil war, and more recently has witnessed Ecuador’s rapid slide into violence and gang warfare.

Yet “my first identity is as an artist,” A-Baki told The Washington Diplomat some 25 years ago. “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.”

Now, after a second four-year stint as ambassador in Washington, A-Baki, 73, has moved to Paris at the request of 36-year-old President Daniel Noboa—who took office in November 2023—in what will likely be her final overseas posting before retirement. In a way, it brings her full circle, back to the city where she studied art at the prestigious Sorbonne so many years ago.

“I love Washington, but the president wants me to open up Europe, and he likes [French President Emmanuel] Macron,” she said in an interview at DC’s Georgetown Club the week before her departure. “I did what I came here to do. Now there will be elections [in November], and it’s the moment to move on.”

Born in the sprawling port city of Guayaquil, A-Baki was the daughter of immigrants 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 that country promised a wealth of economic opportunity.

In 1968, as a 16-year-old graduate of a Guayaquil colegio, A-Baki 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,” she said—but she stayed for 19 years, married, raised three children, began painting and studied Islamic art at the American University of Beirut. In between, she served as Ecuador’s honorary consul-general to Lebanon. During most of those years, her adopted country was embroiled in a heartbreaking civil war that finally forced her to leave the Middle East permanently.

The art of diplomacy

A-Baki soon enrolled at Harvard, where she established the Harvard Arts for Peace Foundation and continued to paint in her spare time. She was also Ecuador’s honorary consul in Boston. Upon graduating in 1993 with a master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government, A-Baki decided to dedicate her life to diplomacy and conflict resolution.

The gregarious ambassador—who in addition to native Spanish and Arabic learned in Lebanon also speaks fluent French, Italian, English and German—eventually played a crucial role in bringing Ecuador and long-time adversary Peru to the negotiating table over a border dispute.

Ecuador’s Ivonne A-Baki

During her first stint in Washington as ambassador—with Bill Clinton and later George H.W. Bush in the White House—she extended Andean trade preferences to combat drug trafficking, while her response to a massive 2001 oil spill off Ecuador’s fragile Galápagos Islands led to the formation of the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy.

In 2002, A-Baki launched a longshot bid for the presidency as head of the META party, coming in eighth place out of 11 candidates, with only 79,598 votes, or 1.7% of the total. That election was won by Lucio Gutiérrez, who took office in early 2003 but was overthrown two years later.

“I knew I was not going to win, but I ran because I liked the process,” A-Baki recalled. “For me, I won a lot by losing. I never knew what Ecuador really needed, and it made me realize that what they need is a woman.”

That of course didn’t happen, and after serving as minister of foreign trade, industry, regional integration, fisheries and competitiveness from 2003 to 2005, she held several leadership roles with the Andean Parliament, the European-Latin American Parliament and UNESCO.

A-Baki returned to diplomacy in 2017 as ambassador to Qatar—with concurrent representation to Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria—a post she held until early 2020 and her reassignment to Washington.

“This is my home. When I first came here in 1987, I had an art exhibition at the IMF and I fell in love with Washington,” she said. “In Lebanon, they saw me as a foreigner because I was from Ecuador. In Ecuador, they saw me as a foreigner because I was from Lebanon.”

Ecuador consumed by drug-fueled violence

Bilateral ties began souring with the 2006 election of leftist Rafael Correa as president. They hit a low in April 2011, when Ecuador expelled then-US Ambassador Luís Gallegos after the leaking of a diplomatic cable accusing Correa of knowingly ignoring police corruption.

“He had kicked out USAID and cut relations with the IMF and the World Bank. It was a very bad moment,” A-Baki recalled. Things started to improve only with the election of Lenín Moreno—who had been Correa’s vice-president—and his February 2020 visit to Washington and meeting with Donald Trump marked the first bilateral presidential meeting in 17 years.

Security forces on alert in Guayaquil, Ecuador. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

“We are now at the best moment of relations ever. In Congress, the Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on anything, except when it comes to Ecuador,” she said. “In 2022, we passed the Ecuador-US Partnership Act unanimously. This gives us support for everything—the environment, social welfare and security. It helps us strengthen democracy.”

Yet Ecuador is currently caught in a downward spiral of drug-related gang warfare. Following the coronavirus pandemic, which devastated the economy—and the relaxation of gun controls by Noboa’s predecessor, Guillermo Lasso—violence spiked to 7,994 homicides last year, up nearly two-thirds from 2022 figures.

Last August, anti-corruption presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was gunned down in Quito; five suspects accused of involvement in the killing are now on trial. Then in January 2024, gunmen stormed a live TV broadcast in Guayaquil. Over the ensuing two months, the Noboa government arrested nearly 13,000 people, 280 on terrorism charges.

More recently, in late March 27-year-old Brigitte García—the country’s youngest mayor—was found shot to death in her town of San Vicente along with her communications director.

“The government blames the situation on the growing reach of cocaine trafficking gangs, which have destabilized swathes of South America,” Reuters reported March 27. “Inside Ecuador’s prisons, gangs have taken advantage of the state’s weak control to expand their power. Prison violence has become increasingly common, resulting in hundreds of deaths in incidents authorities have blamed on gang battles to control jails.”

That’s a dramatic change from only a few years ago, when Ecuador was considered an island of stability wedged between Peru and Colombia, the world’s two largest cocaine producers.

According to CNN, “Ecuador’s deep ports have made it a key transit point for drugs making its way to consumers in the US and Europe. And its dollarized economy also makes it a strategic location for traffickers seeking to launder money.”

An armored police vehicle patrols the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

A-Baki publishes the story of her life—and looks to the future

A-Baki didn’t talk much about the current crisis other than to say that since Noboa’s inauguration, the situation has stabilized. Whether that’s true is debatable, though. A 90-day state of emergency that was due to expire in early April has done little to ease the violence,

Despite the chaos, she said, US-Ecuador trade is booming, with more than $5 billion worth of goods exported to the US market in 2023, led by shrimp, roses, bananas, tuna, coffee and cacao. A-Baki also hopes to bring more European tourists to Ecuador to see the country’s biodiversity—ranging from the Galápagos Islands to the Amazon rainforest.

“This should be our number-one source of income, but we haven’t done enough,” she conceded.

In 2021, A-Baki wrote her autobiography, My Destiny: Horrors of War and Aspirations for Peace. The 272-page volume, translated from the original Arabic into English by Hammood Khalid Obaid, will soon be available in Spanish as well. Much of it is devoted to her friendship with Trump, whom she first met in 2000—but whom she later criticized for his support of Israel, especially his 2017 decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

She dedicated it “to all the nations of the world striving for peace, and to the women, who pay the most in its absence”—and to the memory of her parents and her late husband, Sami Abd-El-Baki, who died in 2017.

“We are all interconnected. If your next-door neighbor is not OK, you are not OK,” she told the Diplomat as we wrapped up our interview. “We have to fight poverty and exclusion in the world—generating jobs for people so they’ll feel included in society.”

Asked briefly about the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza—and the increasing possibility of her beloved Lebanon getting dragged into the fighting, A-Baki was adamant.

“Who pays the price for all these wars? Women, children and the elderly who have nothing to do with it, and it’s all because of greed, power and arms sales,” she said. “It’s a vicious circle. Enough is enough. This is why we need more women in power.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.