When the presidents of Ecuador and Peru signed a 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 in the heat of the Lebanese civil war.
Ivonne Abdel-Baki, Ecuador's first female envoy to the United States, is also one of the few Arab women ever to have served as an ambassador to 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 in the us capital 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 Niño," A-Baki says. "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 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 says—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, the country was embroiled in a heartbreaking civil war; it finally forced her to leave the Middle East permanently.
"My husband, Sami Abdel-Baki, was working with non-governmental organizations 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 herself, 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 Kennedy School of Government, A-Baki had decided to dedicate her life to conflict resolution.
The gregarious ambassador—who in addition to native Spanish and Arabic learned in Lebanon also speaks fluent French, Italian, English and German—was determined to prevent Ecuador from following the path of death and destruction Lebanon had taken. In fact, she played a crucial role in bringing her country and its 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 says. "But as I grew older, I began questioning things."
Five years ago, while at Harvard, she and five other Ecuadorians began negotiating quietly 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 sums in lost revenue and lost investment in Ecuador's petroleum resources.
"Only two years ago, nobody would have been able to talk about peace with Peru," she explains. "Any president who had said he wanted a peace treaty with Peru would have been considered a traitor. There was no willingness to find a solution."
But thanks to the negotiations that began at Harvard, a solution was found, and on October 26, 1998 the then president of Ecuador, Jamil Mahuad—also of Lebanese descent—and his Peruvian counterpart, Alberto Fujimori, signed a peace treaty at an emotional ceremony in Brazil.
A-Baki says the fact that 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 of last year, A-Baki hosted Yas-sir Arafat at her official residence when the Palestinian leader was in town. Their common Middle Eastern heritage and their families' long friendship aside, says A-Baki, Arafat was interested in knowing how Ecuador had made peace with Peru—a lesson he hoped to apply in his own part of the world.
A-Baki rarely has time to spend with her three children, now grown: 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 titled "Bureaucracy" after the "vicious circle" she found in 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 in 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."
Larry Luxner (left) is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Latin America. He is based in Bcthesda, Maryland. His e-mail address is [email protected] .
Eric Haase is a freelance photographer who lives in Rockville, Maryland.