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BPR Interviews: Roberta Jacobson

Roberta Jacobson ’82  is an American diplomat who is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. She previously served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from March 2012, to May 2016, in which she led a U.S. delegation to Havana for historic talks with the Cuban government and negotiated the reopening of the American embassy in Cuba.

BPR: What have been your greatest challenges as Assistant Secretary of Western Hemispheric Affairs?

RJ: No doubt the last year and a half working on Cuba and the change in the policy. Negotiating the opening of diplomatic relations after 54 years has been very difficult, but also probably one of the most satisfying and important things that I’ve done. In other areas, one of the most difficult things has been the situation in Venezuela. On one hand, we have pressure from Congress to implement more sanctions. I would never deny that there are people doing bad things in Venezuela, but sanctions are not necessarily the way to get the kind of behavior we would like. On the other hand, we now have a situation with the National Assembly and the government in Chavista hands. Unless there’s negotiation and actual compromise, things are just going to get worse. This is a country with potentially over 700 percent inflation and food shortages sitting on more oil than anywhere else in the world.

BPR: What are some of your key strategies for Zika?

RJ: The most important is already underway. The Centers for Disease Control and researchers at the National Institutes of Health are already deeply engaged with counterparts in Brazil, Colombia, and other countries…The second thing we need is to make sure our governments and our health ministries make the right public policy calls, not out of fear or ignorance, but based on what we know at the time we know it. Right now, what we know is that 80 percent of people who get Zika are asymptomatic. So for the vast majority of people, it will not be a serious problem. But, for women who are pregnant or are seeking to become pregnant, it’s obviously a very great concern.

BPR: What is your prognosis for the current political situation in Brazil?

RJ: It’s a situation in which the judicial system is moving forward and there has been no interference in the judicial system by the executive. They have a very robust democracy in which multiple parties, more than two-dozen of them, have seats in the congress. What’s most important is that these parties, apart from the scandals, try and work together to move forward on economic policy and help Brazil get out of recession. Some of the other problems can be managed if the country gets back to growth.

BPR: How do you assess the success of the Merida Initiative you helped launch in 2008?

RJ: I would say that it has been a partial success. Part of what we were trying to do was change behavior ­— how police process crime scenes. The other part was trying to instill a habit of cooperation between our two security forces. In this arena, we’ve been highly successful. There have been dozens of instances of cross border cooperation, and none of that was normal before. On the other hand, there is no doubt that we have not yet seen the kind of reduction in cartel activity that we would like to see. People sometimes forget that this is not only a question of Mexico. This is self-interest as well: Mexican cartels operate in more than 200 American cities. It’s a work in progress, and I would remind you that Plan Colombia was only declared a success about nine or ten years into its existence. Around year seven, it looked like it might be a disaster. I know that it’s hard to be patient with this much violence, but we have to persevere.

BPR: How has gender influenced your work?

RJ: The State Department has changed dramatically since I started, but it still has a ways to go. State was one of the last departments of the US government to get onsite childcare…There are structural differences, there’s no doubt, but I also think culturally we’ve been slow…I look forward to a time when I can recruit more women into the senior jobs. I’ve had a bunch of women turn me down because they don’t think they can balance the work with children or aging parents. I understand it, and I respect their decision, but I’m sad because there are some good women that I’ve been unable to convince. The sense among many women is that the system — the corporate culture — still won’t accept them having the kind of life that they want while taking a senior job. But, I also know more and more men who are taking paternity leave. So I’m hopeful that, especially when we’re in it together, the corporate culture will change.

BPR: How did you react to the opposition of your nomination as ambassador to Mexico? What are you most looking forward to about the position as ambassador?

RJ: In terms of my reaction to the opposition, it did not surprise me. The opposition came from Senator Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Menendez (D-NJ), who have both been very clear in their opposition to the President’s change in policy on Cuba. For better or worse, I am often the face of that policy. Everyone tries not to take those things personally in Washington…But even after ten months of waiting, I’m still really excited to do this job. Somebody once asked me: “Why would you want to go from being an assistant secretary where you deal with 33 countries to ambassador?” And the answer is that I’ve been doing this job for more than four years. I love it, and it’s a great job, but to be an ambassador to an important country like Mexico would just be remarkable. There has never been a woman as ambassador to Mexico, so I would love to be the first woman.

Editorial Note: While Jacobson ’82 has now been confirmed by the US Senate as the new ambassador to Mexico, this interview was conducted before her confirmation on April 4, 2016.