It’s been nearly a year since President Obama nominated Roberta Jacobson, F86, A19P, to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico. As this magazine went to print, she was still waiting for approval from Congress. The delay has been widely interpreted as punishment from Republican lawmakers who disapprove of the landmark negotiations, led by Jacobson, that re-established U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba last year. At fifty-five, Jacobson has been Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs since 2012, and before that she was the State Department’s point person for Mexico, Canada, and NAFTA. We recently caught up with Jacobson while she was visiting Tufts to see her older son, who is a freshman on campus.
What drew you to work in U.S.-Latin American relations?
Around my sophomore year at Brown, I decided, to my mother’s delight, that I was going to do political science instead of dance and theater because I liked eating too much to do dance and starve myself the rest of my life. I had studied Spanish in high school, and I was in college from ’78 to ’82, the period during which Latin American countries began to go from military dictatorship to democracy. So as a laboratory for political science, it was a really interesting time in Latin America. I also became captivated by the culture and the rhythms of the music and the dance, so it all came together for me, which was odd for a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey.
Why was it important to reconnect the U.S. and Cuba?
It was clear that American public opinion had changed. Trade opportunities were being missed, and people were wondering why we were continuing this anachronistic policy. The Cuba issue was undermining our relationship with countries around the hemisphere. Meanwhile, I’d been working to get Alan Gross out of prison. He was a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who’d been arrested by the Cubans for bringing in a satellite phone and trying to help the Jewish community connect to the internet. We were holding three Cuban spies in prison, and there had been an effort over two years to see if we could work out an exchange. We knew we were going to take a lot of political heat for any kind of swap, so we decided we’d be much better off doing something very big. The thing that came out of the White House—and honestly I had never contemplated it—was normalization of diplomatic relations. And that was because the president thought, ‘Okay, I want to do something that really changes the relationship and signals to Latin America and Europe that we’re changing it.’ We couldn’t lift the embargo, because the embargo was codified into law. But normalizing diplomatic relations was a big signal. The polling since then shows very, very strong support for the new policy of engagement, even among Cuban Americans.
Although you took some heat for it.
From some members of Congress, yes. But I can’t buy my own drinks in Miami—people want to buy my drinks. People want to kiss me. I can hardly walk through the Miami airport without people coming up and thanking me.
Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida who until recently was running for president, seems particularly unhappy with you. He’s twice held up your confirmation to diplomatic posts, and last fall he placed a temporary hold on your nomination as ambassador to Mexico. What did you do to get Marco Rubio so upset?
I’m the face of the Cuba policy and I’m up for nomination. So yeah, he’s upset with me, but it’s about the policy. The whole process of nomination and confirmation with the Senate has become not just broken but really deleterious to our foreign policy. We didn’t have an ambassador in Russia for six months at one point. We didn’t have an ambassador in Turkey for something like nine months. And we don’t have an ambassador in Mexico for however long it is until I get confirmed.
You helped develop the Merida Initiative, a 2008 security cooperation agreement among the U.S., Mexico, and the countries of Central America to combat drug trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering. How’s that going?
This is such a government answer, but I think it depends on the metrics. We are criticized sometimes because, after all, there are still a lot of drug traffickers in Mexico, there are a lot of drugs still coming through Mexico, there is still a great deal of violence. All true. But in Mexico, the federal police have gotten much better—more responsive, more capable. But there are over 400,000 state and local police, and from what we know, some of them are among the worst abusers. Sometimes they’re traffickers themselves. So we have a long way to go. Another problem is that the cartels have fragmented, so instead of three or five cartels like when I first started working on Mexico, there are roughly fifteen. They fight each other, which is where a lot of the violence comes from. The Obama administration has put a lot more money into demand reduction and prevention. That’s critical. Most important, we have to go after drug financing the way we’ve gone after terrorist financing since 9/11. And we are not devoting the same amount of resources to that.
As ambassador, how can you address the continuing flow of people heading north from Central America hoping to get to the United States?
I think the larger crisis in Syria and Europe is masking the fact that there is still a crisis here. And it could get worse. We’re looking at drought conditions in Central America, especially accelerated by El Niño, that could push 2 million more people into food insecurity. This mass migration will keep happening over and over again, with untold tragedies in the meantime, if we don’t attack the conditions that drive folks to migrate, such as violence, corruption, and lack of economic opportunities. And we can’t do that without significantly more resources. Congress has allocated up to $750 million to try to get at the underlying causes of the migration. And that money has the potential to make a huge difference. We know what works. The Agency for International Development did programs in fifty communities and looked at another fifty communities where they didn’t do programs, and the crime rates in the program communities all went down significantly. We can now expand upon those programs that we know work. Sustained investment in the region is the only way we start making a difference. And we can’t work only on security. We have to work on economic development, and we have to work on governance.