Ivonne A-Baki, one of the most prominent women diplomats in Ecuador’s 200-year history, says women have come a long way since she arrived in Washington as her country’s first female ambassador here 23 years ago—but that the battle for gender equality is far from over.
“It’s not the fault of men,” she said. “Sometimes, our #1 enemy is women, because we don’t believe in ourselves. We are more than 50% of the world’s population, but the world is going in the wrong direction. That’s why we need more women working together with men.”
A-Baki, 70, is now serving her second stint as Ecuador’s envoy to the United States. She spoke in a Nov. 3 webinar with Susan Sloan, moderator of the series “A Seat at the Table: Women in Global Leadership.” Other women featured in the series—which is hosted by the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center—include Capricia Marshall, former US chief of protocol, and Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the current ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States.
A-Baki, the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant-turned-banana entrepreneur, was born in the port city of Guayaquíl and grew up speaking Spanish. At the age of 16, she traveled to Lebanon for the first time to visit her mother’s family; there she learned Arabic, English and French.
She remained in Beirut for 19 years, married, raised three children and also served as Ecuador’s honorary consul in Lebanon. But then in 1975, the country’s civil war broke out, pitting Muslims against Christians and eventually forcing her to leave the Middle East permanently.
“It’s amazing how a war can change you,” she said. “After the war started, we as women couldn’t be heard. So I started painting, showing in another way what I couldn’t say in words, using women as a symbol of unconditional love. I met so many amazing women, and through their eyes, you could feel their power.”
A-Baki said she and her late husband established a foundation to give women more leadership possibilities and include them in society, regardless of their religion.
“I started working for peace, at first through the arts, and then through politics and diplomacy,” she said. “You have to have passion for what you do, and you have to believe in something. And never underestimate coincidences: there’s a reason for everything that happens to you.”
In her case, it was a late-night phone call from Ecuador’s then-president, Sixto Durán Ballen, that came while A-Baki was studying for her master’s in public administration at Harvard. At that particular moment, she was having dinner in Cambridge, Mass., with her professor, the late Roger Fisher, and other students in her conflict management group.
“In 1995, a war started between Ecuador and Peru, and the president was asking me if Roger Fisher could come to Ecuador with his team and help,” A-Baki said, recalling how she immediately passed the call to Fisher, who was seated right next to her. “After two days, we were in Ecuador, and my life changed from being an artist to a negotiator.”
It took three years, but A-Baki succeeded in helping bring about an end to border hostilities that dated back to the 19th century, establishing herself in the process as an adept negotiator. On Oct. 26, 1998, Ecuador’s then-president, Jamil Mahuad—also of Lebanese descent—and his Peruvian counterpart, Alberto Fujimori, signed a peace treaty at an emotional ceremony in Brazil.
Shortly after, A-Baki was named Ecuador’s envoy to the US. At the time, only two women were serving as ambassadors here—one from Africa, and one from Asia. By 2000, there were 12, and by the time she presented her credentials to President Trump on Feb. 6, 2020, there were 27.
“You cannot have a solution if you only take everything, because it’s not a solution,” said A-Baki, explaining why women generally make better negotiators than men. “That’s why we don’t have peace in the world, because always somebody wins and somebody loses. The real gain is when both sides lose a little, and we all gain something. The same is true in politics and in life.”
In between her two stints as ambassador, A-Baki pursued a budding career as an artist and also ran for president of her Nevada-sized country, which is today home to 17.8 million people.
“Art is everything. I don’t think I can do anything without having music in the background. It inspires you. It makes you feel the sky is the limit,” she said. “Every one of us has something artistic inside. Even the way we think I an art. We are humans, so we have feelings, and I think this pandemic really showed us how important a hug is, or a kiss, or a handshake.”
She continued: “Art is light, and diplomacy is an art too. The say the definition of a diplomat is the one who can tell somebody to go to hell in such a way that he or she will be looking forward to the trip.”
Besides her art career, A-Baki also unsuccessfully ran for president of Ecuador in 2002, then went on to serve as Ecuador’s minister of foreign trade, and in 2007 was elected to a two-year term as president of the Andean Parliament. Her most recent posting before returning to Washington was as Ecuador’s ambassador to Qatar as well as non-resident ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman and Syria.
“It’s not that I wanted to be president. It was important to open doors for other women,” she said. “I knew I was not going to win. Don’t forget, I left Ecuador when I was 13. Nobody knew me.”
Nevertheless, she lists that experience—running for president—along with Lebanon’s civil war as the two things that changed her life the most.
“I visited places that I never thought would have such poverty. There is an Afro-Caribbean area called Esmeralda, in northern Ecuador. I went up a river and there I saw young children with swollen stomachs and older people losing their sight. It was all because of river blindness, which we eradicated with vaccines provided by Jimmy Carter’s foundation,” she said. “I didn’t win the presidency, of course, but I won in other ways. It was the most amazing experience. I’m very happy that I did it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”