After having collaborated from diplomacy for 40 years, with eight governments of different ideological tendencies, Ivonne Baki is concerned. In her office, on the second floor of the Ecuadorian embassy in Washington, she shares coffee and Ecuadorian sweets with her visitors. She also usually gives them an export rose and a copy of her biographical book. She does not like to get up early and avoids going to breakfasts and morning ceremonies, which are common in diplomatic life, and she prefers to stay up until dawn, dispatching from her house.
Although she insists that relations between Quito and Washington “are at their best moment”, the favorite commonplace of every diplomat, she recognizes that today one of the issues that keeps her on constant alert, almost without sleep, is the level of corruption and drug trafficking in the country. “That didn’t happen before,” she says, in an interview with EL UNIVERSO. For her, the before and after is marked by the government of Rafael Correa, with whom, paradoxically, she also collaborated as head of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which failed in its attempt to obtain international funds in exchange for leaving the oil underground. .
Her incorporation to Rafael Correa’s team to lead the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was a surprise.
Well, I’m never for the person, but for the country. Many tell me that one has an ideology, but I am neither left nor right nor center. I have never felt that I belong to a group. It’s hard for them (in Ecuador) to understand.
Because one has to do something to evolve. All parties have unique leaders. It happens everywhere, but it is time for a new world order. With social networks, today the people are more active, because they know what is happening and can speak. While before… It is true that now there is much more fake news; however, it is more that (the networks) are helping to raise awareness.
With Lenín Moreno, in 2017, she returned to the embassy in the United States (between 1998 and 2002 she held that position for former presidents Jamil Mahuad and Gustavo Noboa).
The Yasuní issue ended and two months later my husband developed cancer. So, I cut everything and went to Lebanon. In 2017, with President Moreno, since I could not hold any position other than in the Middle East, the only embassy in the region was in Qatar, which covered Lebanon and the countries in the region as well. Although from the beginning, President Moreno wanted me to be in Washington. President Trump too. But the chancellor at the time, María Fernanda Espinosa, refused. They said that the political bureau was against it. Everything is ideology and we return to the same.
But she finally made it to Washington
When I was in Qatar, President Moreno asked me to come to the embassy in Washington, because he wanted to change the commercial part. To be honest, I had no idea that they had already put my name and that a week later it was accepted (by the United States). It was on February 6, 2020. After 5 days, they gave President Moreno an invitation letter for an official visit.
And now she is an ambassador for the government of Guillermo Lasso. In that 40-year journey, between diplomacy and politics, and more time abroad than inside the country, how do you see Ecuador?
Honestly, I never imagined that corruption would reach these levels. I think the first four years of former President Correa were fine. I don’t know what happened in the next six. They say that power corrupts; that’s the problem. That caused what we now have. I had never seen so much corruption or the drug problem. When I arrived at the embassy in 1998 I remember that the first meeting I had in the Senate (on the issue of Plan Colombia) my argument was that Ecuador was a peaceful country par excellence, that we had never had drug trafficking and that they had to support us in something (because a territory was being liberated for the FARC that bordered the border with Ecuador). So, the Manta Base was built, which was not a military base, but to control drug trafficking. If it weren’t for that base, Ecuador would be awash in drugs. But President Correa arrives and cuts everything: he removes USAID, the IMF, the World Bank, the Manta Base… And, on top of that, he puts the consumption table in minimum quantities; They carry the drug in small amounts and give it to schools… That turned them into consumers and caused everything we are seeing in prisons, the mafias… There wasn’t that before. When have we seen this from the Sinaloa cartels? They are all in Ecuador. How is that possible? Of course, it is also an issue of poverty, that is why we must have trade agreements with the whole world and with the United States something must be done. We had the ATPDA, (an incentive) to eradicate drugs, and former President Correa also unilaterally cut it.
Did the government of Rafael Correa, in your opinion, mark a before and after in the issue of drug trafficking?
Absolutely changed the country!
Has Ecuador deteriorated so much?
Before it was not known (about the levels of corruption and drug trafficking) because everything was covered up. But we have known since the time of President Moreno. If it wasn’t for him…
And so you don’t regret having collaborated with Correa?
No. I do not regret anything. Rather, I am sure that President Correa is sorry, but he is not going to say it.
Sorry about what?
Of everything he has done. It is not the Ecuador that he wants, I imagine.
How do you address these two issues that he has mentioned, corruption and drug trafficking, in his capacity as representative of the Ecuadorian government before the United States?
We’re working a lot on that, but nothing can be said until the people in charge do it.
The box question: how is the United States seeing us in that sense?
Excellently good. They are one hundred percent with us.
You say that they see us “excellently well”, but last December, the United States ambassador in Quito, Michael J. Fitzpatrick, dropped a bombshell by publicly saying that his government had unilaterally decided withdraw the visas of “drug generals” from the Police, as well as lawyers and judges due to their relationship with corruption and drug trafficking (the interview was conducted before the case became known of the family of Abdalá Bucaram).
It seems that taking away their visas is the only way for people to react. And President Lasso is aware of that. You can’t let these people do whatever they want. If they have corruption problems, of course you have to take away their visa.
It is a unilateral decision
Ecuador has seized some 200 tons of drugs, but how many more will there be? And all these people (traffickers) come to the United States, to Miami… Who is discovering all this? United States, because it knows what is happening.
Doesn’t all this also reveal that the Ecuadorian State is incapable of controlling drug trafficking?
They are mafias so big that they cannot be controlled. In addition, Ecuador is a dollarized country. So, money laundering, the movement that occurs… They are paying a lot of money. And that has to be cleaned. The United States is aware and wants to help. The relationship is better, because we are working as a team. Colombia and Mexico are also helping.
Don’t you think that Fitzpatrick’s statement is a serious warning, which goes beyond just a “slap on the wrist”?
Not only to Ecuador, but to the rest of the countries. Ecuador and Colombia are today, perhaps, the only ones left to the United States with the same values in the region. But, look, how can it be possible that I arrived in Guayaquil (last February) to the meeting of the TIC (the Ecuador-United States Trade and Investment Council, with a view to a trade agreement) and the next day (in the news) is that two men appear hanging on a bridge. When has that been seen? What poster is it? From Mexico. We cannot let this enter Ecuador.
The problem is aggravated when, as the embassy itself has said, there are police generals or judges who are also involved
That is why we must not let it get contaminated. You have to cut where necessary.
The US ambassador has been criticized for interfering in internal affairs
You’re not getting in the way, rather We are asking you to get in. (He) could say “do what you want and if you want to turn Ecuador into another problem of terrorism, drug trafficking, drug laundering, human trafficking…, if you want to do it, do it.” Tell me, who in Ecuador wants all this, if not those who are benefiting? A rotten apple damages the others and must be removed.
Should Fitzpatrick’s statement be welcomed, then?
This statement is not his. It’s not his, just like that. He does what he is told he has to do.
The US government?
And also Ecuador. It is not a thing that is going out just like that. President Lasso said “do what you have to do, I don’t want corruption in Ecuador”.
You have highlighted the commercial issue, but are these advances not affected by the problems of corruption and drug trafficking?
All countries have corruption. United States, too. It is not only the United States that is doing us a favor, but also us, by being stable in the region. It is not a black and white issue.
Ivonne Baki has many detractors. They have told him everything: that he is from the right, a CIA agent, that he has worked more for personal convenience than for the interests of the country, that he has replaced diplomacy with a light platform of friendships and personal vanities… However, she cares little or nothing about those criticisms. Her response is forceful: since the return to democracy she has worked with eight different governments. Those of Jaime Roldós, Sixto Durán-Ballén, Jamil Mahuad, Lucio Gutiérrez, Gustavo Noboa, Rafael Correa, Lenín Moreno and Guillermo Lasso.
Not only that. She is also questioned -especially, from the Ecuadorian left- her ignorance of the national reality. In fact, Ella Baki acknowledges that when she ran as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, in 2002, she barely knew the country.
In February she turned 71, most of which she has spent in any part of the world, although more between Lebanon, where her parents and husband were from, and the United States, where built the pillar of his political capital: contacts with power. “I have few close friends: five best friends, who have high positions in politics, and five best friends, who, what a coincidence, are all (movie) stars.”
Is her best friend Donald Trump?
No. I have best friends. Maybe Melania (Trump’s wife) is more my friend… haha her. I don’t know…
she says it without showing off, as if her contacts were an anecdote that she can pass on to anyone. However, outside of those “ten best friends”, in the following close circles there are still important characters for the White House, the Senate, the Congress…
How did she start her public life, in diplomacy?
First, I was an artist. For me, music, drawing, poetry, painting and art are the same thing. In 1975, a horrible civil war had started in Lebanon and my children were born under the blast of the bombs. So, what he couldn’t say in words, he said with paint. That was the first part of my public life. Later, in 1981, I was appointed honorary consul of Ecuador in Lebanon. My dad did not accept that position. He said “let her be my daughter” and it changed my life. Then my parents and my dad died, when he was in bed, before he died, he took my hand and said “Ivonne, don’t forget that your first country is Ecuador.” The next day I took my three children out and we came to Washington (around 1987).
She was studying at Harvard and, in 1995, the then president, Sixto Durán Ballén, called her.
He called me on the phone to tell me that the war between Ecuador and Peru had started, and if I could tell Professor Roger Fisher (a Harvard negotiation expert) to go to Ecuador. Precisely, at that moment, he was with the entire Harvard conflict management group at my house in Boston, and I handed him the phone. Three days later we were in Ecuador. Later, when Jamil Mahuad was elected president, I asked him to sign the peace.
Were you an adviser to Mahuad since the campaign?
Yes, we also work on the campaign. Until that moment (when he was 47 years old), I had not returned to Ecuador (he left for Lebanon at 13).
And Mahuad won
And he appointed me ambassador to Washington. On October 26, 1998, peace was signed, and the next day I came to the United States. I spent two years with Jamil Mahuad and two with Gustavo Noboa. It’s funny, at the same time I was with Bill Clinton for two years and two with George W. Bush. Now history is repeating itself: I was as ambassador in the time of Lenín Moreno and Trump, and now with President Lasso and President Biden. For me, (the embassy) is like coming home.
she was in the middle of a career in diplomacy and in 2002 she presented herself as a candidate for the Presidency
I knew I wasn’t going to win, but it was my son Faisal who convinced me. I had not been to Ecuador, I did not know it and nobody knew me. When they did the survey of how many people knew me, it didn’t even reach 5%. But it was a wonderful experience.
she Then she was a minister for one of her campaign rivals, Lucio Gutiérrez.
I was Minister of Trade, Industries, Integration, Fisheries, Competitiveness… It was a huge ministry. In that ministry we could have made the Free Trade Agreement, the FTA, with the United States, together with Colombia and Peru. We finished the negotiations, the 14 rounds were held and, suddenly, the government fell. At that time, (Rafael) Correa was an economic adviser to Vice President Alfredo Palacio (who became president after the fall of Gutiérrez). And they stopped everything; he was always against.
We were already celebrating in Washington…
How did you manage to adapt to the political tendencies of the different rulers, both in Ecuador and in the United States?
For me it is more the personal issue: friendship and trust do everything. That’s why it’s always been important for me to have those friendships. For example, I never stopped being friends with the Democrats, my friends were always there. They are in very high positions and are close friends of mine, many are like my family. Nor is it that when they lose (power) I leave. I will not stop being friends with Donald Trump (Republican) or with those who were in the previous government. Personal relationships are more important than politics.
Ideology takes a backseat
For me freedom is the most important thing. Decide and say what you want without being classified or judged by ideologies.
Doesn’t that shock you when you travel to Ecuador and encounter openly polarized domestic politics?
How terrible is that! Why don’t they start working more for common issues, the ones that the people want? Do you think that the people are interested in whether someone is from the left or from the right?
Has this ideologization brought you problems?
It has always brought me problems, they always criticize me, but I know what I am and I don’t care.
Will you move to Ecuador at some point?
… (sighs) If the country is fixed as I think it will be… My son is there, he loves Ecuador.
With so many celebrities among her friends and with an initial career as a painter, did the world of the jet set instead of politics ever attract your attention?
At my exhibition in Cannes, in ’85, one of the world’s leading film producers wanted me to become a Hollywood star. But my husband, at the time, told me: “you can be a politician, president of the world, whatever you want, but please, not Hollywood”. So…, that happened.
Political and diplomatic career
- In 1981, he was consul of Ecuador in Beirut / Government of Jaime Roldós and Osvaldo Hurtado.
- Between 1992 and 1998, she was honorary consul of Ecuador in Boston / Government of Sixto Durán Ballén.
- In 1998 she was an adviser to President Jamil Mahuad. She participated in the negotiating team for the peace agreement between Ecuador and Peru. She was later appointed ambassador to Washington / Government of Jamil Mahuad.
- Between 1998 and 2002 she held the position of ambassador of Ecuador in the United States / Government of Gustavo Noboa.
- In 2002 she was a candidate for the Presidency.
- Between 2003 and 2005 she was appointed as Minister of Foreign Trade. During her management, she began the negotiation of the free trade agreement with the United States / Government of Lucio Gutiérrez.
- Between 2006 and 2009, she went to the Andean Parliament (distinction she obtained after winning votes for that instance).
- Between 2010 and 2013, she was appointed Chief Negotiator of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, in order to preserve the Yasuní National Park / Government of Rafael Correa.
- Between September 2017 and February 2020, she held the position of Ecuador’s ambassador to Qatar and non-resident ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman and Syria. / Government of Lenin Moreno
- On the 6th of February 2020, she presented her credentials as ambassador of Ecuador to the United States. Government of Guillermo Lasso. (I)