By Stephanie Nehme The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon.
BEIRUT: For an accomplished woman with distinguished titles, including the first female Ecuadorian ambassador to the United States, Ivonne Baki exudes humility. An artist, painter, negotiator and diplomat, Baki told her inspiring story to supporters last week at the Young Women's Christian Association. They learned of her lifelong dedication to serve her fellow citizens throughout the course of her decades-long political career.
Baki spoke to an informal gathering organized by the YWCA Beirut's Leadership Committee, as part of their Inspire Program, which hosts a leading lady figure once a month.
"The aim of this program is to inspire other women and allow them to see that nothing is impossible with hard work, dedication and perseverance," Rola al-Khoury, president of YWCA Beirut, told The Daily Star.
Born and raised in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Lebanese parents, Baki got involved in the arts at the tender age of 3 with ballet and classical music. "We are born with art. Art speaks to the heart. It unites people because it is a universal language, a silent but eloquent language," Baki told The Daily Star ahead of her talk.
Baki attended school in Beirut during her adolescence, a time that coincided with the most violent chapter in Lebanese history.
"It was ridiculous to see people killing one another over religion. The first question I was asked when I came to Lebanon was 'What is your religion?' Frankly, I didn't know! I thought I was Catholic like most people in Ecuador. So, I asked my father what my religion was."
"My father told me to never to answer that question. 'Tell them that you believe in God, if you believe in one, daughter,'" Baki said.
She would eventually marry a Lebanese man. "My kids saw only war here. I couldn't speak out so I started painting to express myself. I was using women, in my paintings, as a symbol of unconditional love and peace," she said with a smile, dressed in a signature black and white pencil dress.
Baki then attended Harvard University, where she received a master's in public administration, public policy and negotiation, later becoming a resident artist at Harvard.
"While there, we created a foundation, Arts for Politics, aiming to use art to unite people, especially in countries ravaged by conflict."
Her art led to initiatives that helped to end the Cenepa War between Peru and Ecuador. "Art brought them together. We organized an exhibition including famous artists from both countries. Out of that came the start of peace negotiations in 1995 and ended in 1998, which ended the war."
After that peace agreement was signed, Baki was appointed ambassador of Ecuador to the United States, a post she held between 1998 and 2002, during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
"It was a man's world. It was hard to enter a room where they would take you seriously or where men didn't compliment you about your dress and hairstyle. I started treating them the same way. 'You look beautiful today, Mr.' They were shocked," she said to a laughing audience.
Baki ran for Ecuador's presidency in 2002.
"I didn't believe in the parties that existed at the time because they were all a repetition. I ran independently, creating my own movement called META, taken from the word metamorphosis. My platform was mostly against corruption."
"We wanted to create a stronger middle class by providing jobs and shrinking the great gap between rich and poor through education and sustainable development. It was about making change happen by uniting the efforts of women and men."
"Of course I knew I was not going to win!" she continued. "It's not about winning; it's the process. If you don't reach your goal, others will. Once you start, your work becomes a motivator for others to start."
After the presidential election, she was appointed, between 2003 and 2005, as minister of foreign trade in Ecuador. The arts played a key role in all her undertakings.
"Art is about connecting with God. It's about creation. It's about being one with the universe and asking the universe what is needed. And what is more needed nowadays than serving human beings?"
Between 2007 and 2009, she was elected president of the Andean Parliament. "I ran because laws were needed. Change cannot happen if you don't have laws. We worked on implementing a law requiring candidate lists to have a man's name followed by a woman's name and vice versa as opposed to all the male candidates listed from the start and female ones hidden further down. Now, due to that law, there is equal gender representation in the parliament in Ecuador."
Baki is currently working on preserving one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. "The Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, the size of Lebanon, is a gem. We can drill it for its rich oil reserve and get billions of dollars, but we would be losing in the long run. People can support the initiative through 'I am Yasuni,' an online campaign." Baki is the chief negotiator for the conservation campaign.
"It's a must that women be able to assume positions that can allow them to make a difference. Women are more pragmatic than men. Women can bring about change. It's our time now."
Baki sees change coming to Lebanon in the long run.
"Nothing is impossible with a group effort. But you have to have the right group around you that believes in the same things. I don't see that here yet in Lebanon."
Baki currently serves as an international affairs adviser to the president of Ecuador, a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO for the Dialogue of Civilizations and still represents Ecuador in the Andean Parliament. She is also a member of several social organizations and has received numerous awards for her work and advocacy.
For Lebanon, Baki wishes to revive the country of her childhood. "Lebanon should once again be an example to the world of coexistence. Only the inclusion of women in positions of authority will allow this needed change to take effect."