May - June 2023 Articles

H.E. Ivonne A-Baki

Ambassador of Ecuador to the United States

A Second Attempt at Stronger Relations

When Ivonne A-Baki ended her first Washington assignment as Ecuador's ambassador in 2002 she went home and ran for president of her country. A handful of American political strategists lent their support, and a sprinkling of visiting celebrities pumped up the glamor level, notably Bo Derek, star of the movie "10" and the ambassador's friend.

Ivonne A-Baki – herself a "10" in diplomatic and social circles - lost the election, but as she recently told Diplomatic Connections in an interview, out of the wreckage of a failed presidential bid emerged a prominent, concerned public servant.

In the successive decade, she was minister of trade, industry, and productivity, and then a member of the Andean Parliament, where she was voted president. Following a major oil spill in the Galapagos Islands, she was the lead in establishing tighter regulations to protect marine life in Ecuador's volcanic archipelago.

Later she also brokered a short-lived international agreement to keep oil reserves in the ground in an attempt to leave undisturbed the ecological wealth of the Ecuadorian Amazon. All of which brought Ambassador A-Baki round full circle to a second term as Ecuador's chief of mission in Washington for her second assignment.

As much, if not more, than the rest of the Western Hemisphere, Ecuador is still reeling from the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Latin America has seen the deepest economic contraction of any region in the world, with income inequality widening, people cast back into poverty, and global inflation – made worse by Putin's war in Ukraine – straining families' budgets.

Recent political elections in Latin America brought the radical left to power in key countries including Chile and long-time U.S. ally Colombia. At the same time violent protests by the indigenous population of the rural highlands has revealed the deep frustration at their lack of inclusion in export of Ecuador's mineral resources, most of which come from their area anyway.

Ambassador A-Baki blames this shift in large part on widespread resentment with declining U.S. support for the region. One effect: China is filling the void with massive infrastructure projects tied to its Belt and Road Initiative.

To Washington's evident relief, Ecuador bucked the trend and elected President Guillermo Lasso, conservative banker and politician. On his recent visit to Washington, Biden called him "a good friend and a significant supporter, and that goes both ways. We have to figure out how to expand and strengthen even an already strong relationship." The White House used President Lasso's visit to launch The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity a new agreement aimed at boosting the Western Hemisphere's economic recovery and growth. The Biden administration is also committed to raising the level of support for Ecuador's struggle against strong narco activity, mainly as the distribution point for Colombia's drug cartels.

Harvard-educated Ambassador A-Baki is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants to Ecuador. Her aim in Washington, she says, is to turn words of "friendship and support" into a secure and lasting relationship.

Diplomatic Connections: You are in the middle of your second term as Ecuador's Ambassador in Washington. Your first DC assignment was from, 1998-2002, and after that you didn't return to a diplomatic post until 15 years later, in Qatar. Please fill in for us those intervening years.

Ambassador A-Baki: After I finished from here, I went home to run for president.

Diplomatic Connections: The first woman to do so, in fact.

Ambassador A-Baki: A new group of younger generation Ecuadorians came to see me here, organized by my son Faisal, who lives in Ecuador. They wanted change. They wanted an outsider to stop corruption for the first time. But I had only lived in Ecuador until I was thirteen years old, and then I moved to Lebanon – and never lived there again until I returned to run for president. I was not known in Ecuador. In my early polls I had only five percent name recognition, but when the campaign was over, it was like ninety percent, in only three months.

Diplomatic Connections: But not enough to get you elected.

Ambassador A-Baki: I didn't make it. After all, I was a newcomer. But for me, by losing, I won a lot because I learned more about my country, the needs of the country, the suffering, mostly because of lack of inclusion. It's true there was corruption, everywhere there is corruption. But what people wanted most of all was a job. What I heard was ‘I don't want handouts. I want to have a job that dignifies me, and that makes me feel included in society as a human being.' So the need to generate jobs became my campaign mostly. I didn't make it but the winner of the election, Lucio Gutierrez, asked me to be his minister of foreign trade and industry, which was perfect – this had been the driving part of my campaign –generating jobs. When I was minister of trade and industry I concentrated on fostering trade with the U.S. Now I'm back, and trade is still the main issue.

Diplomatic Connections: The aim then is to pick up where you left off more than a decade ago?

Ambassador A-Baki: At that time we had never negotiated a trade agreement with such a large economy, and we did not have a negotiating team in place. So in a matter of three months, we put together an amazing team, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs primarily, but also from the academic field, from every aspect of civil society. And we were at the point of signing a trade agreement with Colombia and Peru when the government fell. The new minister was the economic adviser of former President Alfredo Palacio, Rafael Correa, who later became president himself. He stopped our trade negotiations because he said he didn´t believe in open trade, especially with the U.S., and Ecuador withdrew from any trade negotiations. We lost 18 years. Now I'm back again, and trade is still the number one issue. We are working towards a free trade agreement with the U.S. and expanding market access.

Diplomatic Connections: But you also held other posts: was that simultaneously with trade, or subsequently?

Ambassador A-Baki: After Minister of Trade, I became president of the Andean Parliament, consisting of representatives from Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. After two years as a member, I was unanimously elected its president for another two years. We also created Eurolat – the European-Latin American parliament, and I was president of the Latin American part of that, with a European counterpart. We did many things together.

Diplomatic Connections: You have also played a key role in improving environmental awareness of Ecuador's important ecological heritage. Please tell us something about that activity.

Ambassador A-Baki: From 2010 to 2013, I was the chief negotiator for the protection of the Amazon, and specifically the Yasuni National Park, which is the world's highest bio-diversity area. The name in the language of its indigenous inhabitants is Sacred Lands. Why is it so rich in bio-diversity? It's because it's a little higher than the Amazon's extensive lowlands (so-called varzeas), so when the Amazon iced over about 4,000 years ago, all the animals from the rest of the Amazon took refuge in Yasuni, and the trees and fauna survived. Previously, in 2001, following the big oil spill (600 tons) off the Galapagos Islands the president asked me to organize the Galapagos Conservancy Foundation to expand the marine reserve and preserve the fishing.

Diplomatic Connections: Was the Andean Parliament a step towards Latin American union along the lines of the EU?

Ambassador A-Baki: We created the Andean passport, but there is free access to Andean countries for Colombians, or the Peruvians, or citizens of other Andean states, you don't really need a passport. The Andean Parliament didn't get to where we wanted to be in terms of connectivity, for example, with electricity.

Diplomatic Connections: Latin American countries don't have as many differences to overcome as the Europeans faced when they planned the European Union.

Ambassador A-Baki: I agree, we have the same culture, the same religion, almost the same language. Even the Portuguese language from Brazil, we understand it as it has a Latin root- and we must not forget to consider the Caribbean countries.

Diplomatic Connections: And yet Latin American countries don't seem to be interested in working towards some form of unification. Why is that?

Ambassador A-Baki: Because of political issues, and the economic factor. In Europe, even before economic union, European countries helped each other economically. That's why I think the approach should be through trade; we should have open trade, not only a union of the Latin American countries, but with the United States as well. The United States could be helping other countries to achieve a level of economic stability, which would have an impact on immigration. If you have immigration to the United States it's because of lack of opportunities in their own countries.

Diplomatic Connections: A situation that leaves the door open for others, Notably China?

Ambassador A-Baki: Twenty-five years ago, in Latin America, Central America, the Caribbean, everywhere, our number one trading partner was the United States. Now, it's China for the whole of Latin America. China is investing in everything. Ecuador has just signed a trade agreement with China, but we don't have one with the U.S. We have a treaty with the European Union, but not with the U.S., but as I said before we are working towards a free trade agreement.

Diplomatic Connections: But is there no South American Jean Monnet, one of the architects of the EU, advancing the idea of further union in the Hemisphere?

Ambassador A-Baki: The idea of a Latin American union is not in the minds of anyone right now, perhaps because of the problems each country is experiencing. Governments are not focusing on this idea; however, it doesn´t mean we are not working together in order to reach common goals.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you agree that recent elections in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, and earlier in Bolivia, have shown Latin America moving to a form of populist left?

Ambassador A-Baki: The people are feeling that they are not being supported by what used to be our number one trading partner, the U.S. There are needs, and when the country needs, the Chinese are there. So this perceived neglect of the Hemisphere, of continuing to treat us as America's backyard, has created this perception among Latin Americans of the U.S. as a "capitalist" country that likes to deal only with other capitalist countries. Actions like sanctions, which I don't agree with because they oppress the people not the leaders, have created an anger within the extreme left wing. The center-left and center-right are still very much with the U.S., within the capitalistic system, but not the majority of the people, and populist movements are taking advantage: Socialism of the 21st century, they call it. Hugo Chavez started it in Venezuela, and Rafael Correa was close to Chavez. They created this regime model and it was taken up by Bolivia and other countries.

Diplomatic Connections: Is it too late for the United States?

Ambassador A-Baki: It's never too late, there's always an opportunity when there is chaos – and there is chaos now. Because the people are not happy with the left either. There is opportunity for what is needed. Trade generates jobs, but so does investment. Why is China investing? Because they see an opportunity with the minerals that we have, with the richness that we have. The United States government doesn't invest in our future.

Diplomatic Connections: Didn't the Biden administration launch The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity in 2022?

Ambassador A-Baki: But it's not working yet and the bureaucracy takes forever. This is a $600 billion program, of which $200 billion will be contributed by the United States. The people in our region still prefer the U.S. This kind of program creates jobs, and creates the credibility that the U.S. and the international financial organizations (World Bank, etc) are investing in our region.

Diplomatic Connections: Would you say that the extreme left has found allies in the region among the increasingly activist indigenous population?

Ambassador A-Baki: That's the inclusion problem. Ecuador has a very good policy of inclusion: We're working to support the Amazon people, but also the Sierra Central people from the mountains. President Lasso has made the problem of child malnutrition the number one issue after security because we have a very high level of child malnutrition. Pregnant mothers are getting advance treatment because that's where it starts. And then also generating jobs, because the Amazon is where the wealth comes from. The minerals are in those regions, and more of the money has to stay there.

Diplomatic Connections: But unrest among the indigenous population is not limited to Ecuador.

Ambassador A-Baki: It's all over (the region), but in Ecuador they are very vocal and well organized. There's a group that has political ambitions; although, they're not a majority as in Bolivia, or in Peru. In Ecuador it's less, and is managed by women. So we are giving them priority in housing – specifically single women – and money to support micro-industries run by women, many of them single mothers.

Diplomatic Connections: At the moment, out of about 195 foreign ambassadors in Washington, around 57 are women, among them representatives of some key allies of the United States.

Ambassador A-Baki: Really? It's the first time ever. When I was here in 2002, there were only three female ambassadors. There was one from Asia and one from Africa. When I left, there were twelve. What's remarkable is that several of the women ambassadors are from the Arab world.

Diplomatic Connections: So how is it different functioning as a female ambassador in what essentially remains a male world?

Ambassador A-Baki: We open doors more easily. We are very good at having more empathy with the issues. Men see the problem, and they don't move from the problem – ‘this is my position.' Women try to find a solution to the problem, by giving ground. I'm sure that if there were more women at the negotiating table in Russia and Ukraine, there would have been no war.

Diplomatic Connections: As I understand it. Is it true that the female ambassadors in Washington meet regularly as a group, across national and political lines – something male ambassadors don't do. I'm not referring to the meetings of geographic groups, such as the Hemispheric chiefs of mission, known as GRULA (Gruppo America Latina y el Caribe), but a caucus based solely on gender?

Ambassador A-Baki: That's very true, and when we meet we don't discuss ideologies or government policy.

Diplomatic Connections: Two decades separates your two assignments in Washington. How different is it to do business here now than it was in your first assignment?

Ambassador A-Baki: It's about the (political) parties. They have changed. Before, Democrats and Republicans were working much better together; now they hate each other. Very much. But still I feel that I'm doing everything the same. I'm being helped by both sides. On December 23rd we signed a U.S. -Ecuador Partnership Act. It passed with a bi-partisan vote in the Senate, and was signed by President Biden, when our president (Guillermo Lasso) was here. We have been working with the Congress and the Senate, with Republicans and Democrats and what we found are friends of Ecuador.

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