Adversity is becoming the speciality of female ambassadors in Washington. Ask Ecuadoran Ambassador Ivonne Abdel Baki, who could have opted for a life of leisure and artistic retreat, but decided to roll up her sleeves to help her country "even if only with a drop of sand."
When Ecuador's Tungurahua and Guagua Pichincha volcanoes started spewing ash plumes and occasional showers of glowing lava rocks last fall, the seismic alarm signals could as well have been about other problems brewing under the surface. First came riots in the streets; then Ecuador defaulted on some Brady bonds last September and subsequently on Eurobonds, delaying an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that would have allowed Ecuador's hobbling economy to receive badly needed aid from other international lenders. After a few harrowing days and sleepless nights trying to muster support for President Jamil Mahuad's plan to replace Ecuador's currency with the U.S. dollar, Abdel Baki was doggedly scouring the interest rates and opinion polls about her president for signs of improvement.
"It has been hectic. But we cannot keep blaming the past," she said of Ecuador's history of corrupt governments and mismanagement in an interview on Wednesday. "We need to draw what lessons there are and move into what the future is going to be. Of course there were many mistakes, but we are trying to do the right thing. Whatever is being asked of us is being done."
With Ecuador facing an external debt of $13 billion, Abdel Baki has been feverishly working with the top brass at the IMF to effect changes back home. "We have slashed expenditures. We started auditing the banking sector, and as a result more than half of the banks were closed last year," she said. "The budget was approved by our congress, tax reform laws were passed, and now dollarization of the economy will help stabilize things. We are rich in commodities: bananas, coffee, flowers, shrimps.
"This measure is going to boost our revenues. It is going to hurt in the short term, but we have to think in terms of long- and mid-term solutions," she emphasized. "Already, in just two days, interest rates on loans between banks dropped from 200 percent to 20 percent."
Abdel Baki, mother of three and an accomplished painter, got roped into politics in her forties. A passion for conflict resolution through art catapulted her into historic negotiations and a peace agreement between her country and Peru. Now, she has had to unleash her creativity on another canvas as ambassador in Washington.
She has lobbied State Department, White House, World Bank and IMF officials to bail out Ecuador. President Clinton called Mahuad in support of his shock economic program last Friday, she said. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin on Tuesday said Mahuad has "taken a bold step." The IMF managing director, Michel Camdessus, announced Monday that "the IMF is prepared to send a fact-finding mission to Quito to provide technical assistance in adapting their fiscal and banking strategies to dollarization."
"People have been supportive, but we need more than words," Abdel Baki stressed. "The region is dangerous. Ecuador is the only country in the Andean region that has not had a problem with narcotics or terrorism. I am afraid to even think of the possibility."
She is not the only busy woman here. Singapore's ambassador showed her toughness when she steeled herself through the Asian financial crisis two years ago. Macedonia's envoy burned the midnight oil when Kosovo's refugees flooded her small nation. Liberia's is still grappling with the challenges of representing a country trying to start up after civil war. The Cypriot ambassador is fighting against permanent partition, and Pakistan's is attempting to put the best face on a military government in the absence of democratic institutions. Relax, the girls are on the job.
World Bank and Iran
A move by World Bank management to prevent two loans to Iran from going to the board of directors for a vote has been reversed at the behest of major shareholders other than the United States. A spokesman at the World Bank said both projects, valued at "$86 million for primary health care and $145 million for sewage management, will go to the board in the next fiscal year," which starts July 1. The bank stopped lending to Iran in 1994 due to opposition from major shareholders, the spokesman said. Major shareholders such as Japan, Germany and France favor proceeding with such "soft" loans, sources said. A U.S. Treasury spokeswoman, however, said, "Iran is a terrorist country, and we are required by U.S. law to vote against projects going to the board of international financial institutions."
A Treasury Department Denial
The Treasury Department denied a report attributed to a European diplomat in this space on Wednesday that Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers proposed altering the tradition of having a European head the International Monetary Fund. "The Treasury Department has never made any such proposal," Michelle Smith, Summers's spokeswoman, said in a statement.