The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Roberta Jacobson: The Ambassador
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating guest from the world of public service. This week, I sit down with Roberta Jacobson, the former United States ambassador to Mexico. Long before she became Ambassador Jacobson, Roberta worked for more than three decades in the State Department, focused on the Americas. She was posted in Argentina, in Peru, and in 2015, she led a U.S. delegation to Havana for historic talks with the Cuban government. But, of the relationships we have with nations around the world, few are as vital to the United States or as central to our citizens and to our economy as our relationship with Mexico. In 2016, President Barack Obama appointed our guest today as the United States ambassador to Mexico. Few people in our nation know more about that country than Roberta Jacobson. She was deeply respected in both countries for the depth of her knowledge, the breadth of her experience and her profound commitment to this complicated but vital relationship. Roberta Jacobson, welcome to The Oath.
Roberta Jacobson: Thanks, Chuck. Thanks for having me.
Rosenberg: It’s our pleasure. Thanks for doing it. Where are you from?
Jacobson: I’m from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on the Palisades, just across the George Washington Bridge from New York City.
Rosenberg: That’s where you grew up.
Jacobson: Yeah. My parents moved there before I was born from Brooklyn. They made the sort of normal Jewish migration from The Lower Eastside, to Brooklyn, to the suburbs. My mother thought she had been taken to some wilderness in the late 50s when they moved there. And it’s one of the closest suburbs in New York City. I was actually born in New York City.
Rosenberg: And tell me a bit about your family, if you don’t mind.
Jacobson: I am a twin. I have a twin brother. I’m three minutes older and I like to call myself the middle child. I have a sister who’s six years older than us. My father used to joke that my brother kicked me out. The doctor said that my brother was a gentleman and he let me go first. There was also the joke in my family that when I was born and I had an older sister, my mother’s reaction, she knew she was having twins, but my mother’s reaction was, oh, no, three girls, poor Julian, my father. And then the doctor said, and a boy. Because my brother was born. And she said, A what? Having no real idea that she might have one of each. So my mom was originally a schoolteacher. I had worked in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn until she gave up her job moving to New Jersey. And my dad was an electrical engineer. But other than my father, I come from a family of lawyers. We haven’t had a doctor in probably generations, but lots of lawyers. So, somehow, I resisted that.
Rosenberg: Were any of them in public service?
Jacobson: Quite a lot of them. And at one point when I was growing up, my mom was the first the head of the PTA, then the head of the Board of Education. My dad was the local chair of the zoning board. Those were voluntary positions. But growing up at one point, I worked for the State Department. My sister worked for the New York City Department of Developmental Disabilities, doing deinstitutionalization of Willowbrook at that point. And my brother was a public defender and people in the town where I grew up would offer my father condolences, because here he had three kids with these very fancy expensive educations and none of us were making any money. We grew up with a sense of commitment to public service. My parents both felt at that point and later that they were very proud of us. That’s what they felt was really one of the highest callings. And although I was the only one who stuck with it most of my career, they were really proud. They never felt that we should be doing something else. So, there was this commitment to public service in the family throughout. I also have a brother in law who was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York for his whole career, working with many people that I later worked with. Whether Jeh Johnson or Jim Comey, lots of people came out of that office. There’s a pretty broad tradition of public service in both sides of the family.
Rosenberg: So you mentioned fancy education. That, for you, was Brown University in Providence. What drew you to graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts?
Jacobson: When I graduated from college, I had a degree in political science and I had a second major, which I designed, which Brown lets you do in Latin American studies at an area that didn’t exist. Brown actually didn’t have an international relations major at that time. I knew I wanted to do international work. I spoke a little bit of Spanish when I got to college. I was interested at one point in Asia, but I thought it might take too long to learn the languages. But the time that I was in college from ‘78 to ’82, Latin American countries were moving from military authoritarianism back to democracy. So in some ways, it was sort of a laboratory for political science and international affairs. Then I worked for two years at the U.N. in New York. Really administrative job, but trying to figure out what I want to do next. And I knew at that point I wanted international affairs with a focus on Latin America. So, my husband and I started applying to grad schools. We were engaged at that point. He was looking for public policy and environmental policy. I was looking for Latin America. And eventually we both got into schools in the same city. That wasn’t the easiest thing. So, he went to the Kennedy School at Harvard and I went to the Fletcher School at Tufts, which didn’t have a very strong Latin America program, but did have some other areas. And of course, had access to so many schools in Boston. That was a great place to be.
Rosenberg: The Fletcher School has an unusual degree, a masters of arts and law and diplomacy. It’s thought of as a bit of a finishing school for diplomats and for State Department types. Is that a fair reputation?
Jacobson: It is fair in the sense that I cannot tell you how many people I ran into in 30 years at the State Department who went to Fletcher. So still, there are a lot of people coming out of that school who go into diplomacy. It’s unfair in the sense that I think it’s much more than that. There were foreign students who were there on Humphrey Fellowships. There were lots of people who added to the mix and made it a much more diverse place. It now has much more in areas like Asia and international business. And so, I think that it really has become more than just State Department striped pants folks.
Rosenberg: I know they’re proud that you’re one of their alum. You mentioned that you worked at the U.N., but eventually you applied to the State Department and that’s where you end up spending most of your professional life.
Jacobson: 31 years. And the interesting thing is when I went into the State Department, I had passed the Foreign Service exam and decided not to go into the Foreign Service because my husband’s work was domestic and we didn’t know how we’d make that work. But I went into State in a program that at that time was called the Presidential Management Internship. It’s now called Presidential Management Fellowship, designed to put people into public service in the U.S. government and kind of move you up a little bit faster. My first couple of years were working in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, doing analysis. And then I moved over to the policy bureau and worked on Latin America. The rest of my career. But when I went in, I always thought, well, I’m a civil servant in a foreign service dominated institution. I’ll stay five years and then I’ll move on to something else. And 31 years later, I retired. I always felt that I had another opportunity. I had amazing mentors. And so I stayed because the mission of the place really appealed to me. And I never felt that I could completely get that sense of satisfaction elsewhere.
Rosenberg: No doubt our listeners know of the State Department, but many may not know about the State Department. You talked about a civil service track and a foreign service track. I’d like to ask you about that. I’d also like you to just describe what the State Department is and what it does.
Jacobson: You know, I think it is true that many people don’t know much about the State Department. There are a lot of, I think, old myths about it and what we do. The first thing that’s important to know is that while the foreign service is obviously what people think about when they think about the State Department—diplomats who go in and serve overseas, rotating every two to four years, let’s say—there is a very large civil servant corps at the State Department. Some of those are administrative, some are lawyers in the legal advisor’s office, some are foreign policy experts like myself. Some are from the old Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which was largely civil service. And so, you have a combination of both generalists, which is what the foreign service prides itself on, being where you move around and do different kinds of jobs, and subject matter experts who provide that institutional memory and very deep knowledge about issues. I remember when I first started at State, you would tell people when you were outside of the Beltway that you worked for the State Department. And the answer sometimes or the question was, “what state?” There’s obviously a pretty proud tradition of very long history in the United States of diplomats, whether it began as legations overseas, converting to embassies and ambassadors. But there’s people who work in the international organizations and in the missions to them, whether it’s the U.N. or regional organizations. There is people who are experts on everything from diplomatic security, which is very much a law enforcement agency to cultural diplomacy and how we bring musical, or theater, or dance, from the United States overseas. And so, it’s very much bringing America to the world and bringing the world back to America. How we translate what’s going on in the world to American citizens. And one of our toughest tasks sometimes is making sure that we are getting outside the Beltway, outside the east and west coasts and engaging with Americans about why foreign policy matters to them.
Rosenberg: Why does foreign policy matter to them?
Jacobson: I think that it’s not just globalization, but certainly that’s accelerated the importance of what’s going on around the world to Americans, whether that’s foreign trade, counternarcotics work, or counterterrorism work. We just have so much engagement with the rest of the world. When I worked on Mexico towards the end of my career, really the last 10 years or so, we used to call working on Mexico “intermestic” because it was both international and domestic. And if you work on North America, as I did, you know that on a day to day basis, Canada and Mexico affect more citizens of the United States than perhaps anywhere else in the world. The products they produce go there. Americans go to Mexico more than anyplace else in the world—31 million a year. There are between a million and a half and two million Americans who live in Mexico full or part time. That integration with the rest of the world is really critical for Americans to understand and to understand because it makes their lives better in so many ways, but also because what happens overseas can affect the United States. If we didn’t understand it before, we surely understood it post-2001 and September 11.
Rosenberg: I want to talk to you obviously more about your experience in Mexico. Your ambassadorship. But I also want you to brag a little bit about the State Department. Wasn’t it the first cabinet established by President Washington?
Jacobson: Indeed, the history of the State Department really is so rich, whether it is foreign treaties being signed, Secretaries of State who’ve really been visionary in understanding that America is part of the world. Going back to Thomas Jefferson and his time in France, Benjamin Franklin understanding that the United States needs to have a presence in the world. Originally that presence was Europe. But as the world became more connected, it’s Secretaries of State really who’ve led the process of engaging with the world, bragging about America to the world, being a place of openness, of tolerance, of integration and a country of immigrants over time, and how the World Wars affected the United States. The corps of diplomats has also changed from being a very elite corps that went perhaps to the most elite, expensive private universities in the country, to being a department that really strived over the years to represent the United States abroad by looking like the United States. And that’s one of the things that I think has been so wonderful. Whether it’s recruitment and aggressive engagement with historically black colleges and universities, with Latino communities, with Native American communities, how can we make sure that we don’t portray the United States as, frankly, elitist, and wealthy, and white, and male? The State Department went through a period in which it had class action lawsuits from both women officers and African-American officers because it wasn’t doing enough to really make sure that it looked like America, that it had people rising to the top who were from all walks of life. And so, it is a very different institution now than even when I joined it 31 years ago. And certainly, when it began with a very, very small and very specific set of individuals in it.
Rosenberg: But one of those you mentioned was Thomas Jefferson, the very first Secretary of State appointed by President Washington. When you think about the history of the State Department and other Secretaries of State who were the visionaries, who were the ones who really moved it forward, in your view?
Jacobson: If you look at the history of the State Department and I confess there are others who are better historians of the State Department than I am. One of the things you have to do when you work at the State Department is walk along what’s known as mahogany row, where the senior leadership of the State Department has their offices. And along those corridors are the portraits of former Secretaries of State. And you sometimes look at those portraits and think, I’ve heard of those people, but I didn’t know they were secretary of state necessarily. For me, you look at some of the real visionaries of the State Department and they include people like, you know, John Foster Dulles or they include people really like George Marshall in particular. George Marshall was the secretary of state in the immediate postwar period, 1947 and 1949 after being a soldier before that.
Rosenberg: What is the Marshall Plan?
Jacobson: The Marshall Plan was designed and written in its short entirety by Secretary of State George Marshall, who had been obviously in the European theater during the war. And it was a plan for the reconstruction of Europe after the war to build back the devastated economies of Europe and ensure that we didn’t have a situation in which to the victors go the spoils, that a very weak, debilitated, economically insecure Europe was not in the U.S. interest. And so, somewhat counterintuitively, we were a big part of rebuilding the economies of those who lost the war in World War 2.
Roseberg: Which, by the way, succeeded spectacularly.
Jacobson: Indeed, it did, and was very much the right thing to do and the smart thing to do, because the allegiance is the alliances that came out of that engagement and that rebuilding were the foundation of NATO and security, both sides of the Atlantic. Somebody pointed out to me because I had not noticed it, in one of the reception rooms in the State Department where we would greet visitors is a copy of the original Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan, I think was maybe two pages. We look at legislation now in its thousand pages and nobody can read the whole thing. It was a very simple document, very elegant—
Rosenberg: And profound.
Jacobson: Deeply profound. And I think Marshall is one of those people who really had a vision for the United States in the world, for the way we should behave, and for how we should be perceived. He really had that vision. I have to say, I think of the secretaries that I worked for, which were many, George Shultz had a vision. George Shultz had in so many different cabinet positions, Labor, Treasury, etc.
Rosenberg: He was appointed secretary of state by Ronald Reagan.
Jacobson: Correct. And he was the first secretary I got to know. And so, you know, he really did have a vision for America in the world. You may or may not have agreed with every policy decision, but he believed in that engagement, believed in the promotion of U.S. values. I think Colin Powell had that same sense of vision. He certainly had something that I had not seen as much before, which was an understanding of how to run a large organization, having come from the military and how to take care of your troops, whether those were soldiers or diplomats. But then you think about the fact that when John Kerry came to the State Department, I joked with him that I was having a little trouble getting used to saying, Mr. Secretary, again, because I’d worked for three female Secretaries of State at that point—Secretary Albright, Secretary Rice, Condoleezza Rice and Secretary Clinton. And that was a huge cultural change. But I also think about the fact that it was under James Baker when he and Margaret Tutwiler, one of his assistant
Secretaries of State, said there are not enough women in the front offices, in the senior positions at the State Department. And they put in place a sort of an unwritten rule that every bureau would have a woman in the front office. And that was hugely important, because you can change the rules, but you won’t necessarily change the culture without that will from the top. So even in the time I was there and not speaking about a foreign policy issue per say, which obviously we did with Secretary Marshall and the Marshall Plan, there were, I think, visionary changes in the way the State Department worked in the people it recruited and in the face of America that was presented to the world.
Rosenberg: Previously you mentioned mentors. Who were your mentors at state?
Jacobson: My mentors over the years have been senior men and women who worked mostly on Latin America because that’s what I did. Some of them know not particularly well known, but I think really giants of diplomacy. One of them was Alexander Watson, Alec Watson, who was the assistant secretary at the beginning of the Clinton administration, someone who had worked all over the region, had been in Peru as ambassador and other places. And he was a giant of the region, not just physically. And I was for a time his executive assistant. And I remember he would go home with enormous stacks of paper, there was a lot more paper in those days, and come back with yellow stick. You know, it’s all over everything, as if he’d read everything, and at one point I said to him—
Rosenberg: He probably did.
Jacobson: And he used to have diplomatic engagements almost every night because he was quite outgoing and social. And I said to him, how do you do this? How do you possibly get through everything? And he said to me, well, I only really need three to four hours of sleep a night. And I thought, well, I give up. I was 15 or 20 years younger than him and not sure I could keep up. But he understood the region. He knew people and was incredibly adept at diplomacy, at advancing American interests and doing so in a way that was never hectoring or nasty, but always positive and engaging to advance American interests.
Rosenberg: I was always struck, Roberta, when I met with State Department officials, how much they knew it was extraordinary. No, I didn’t do that often in my life at the Justice Department and the FBI. But whenever I did, they were so smart. But they’re also so knowledgeable about their part of the world. It was extraordinary.
Jacobson: And that to me was, I think, the thing that kept me at State for 31 years. The people I worked with, they were incredibly smart. They were incredibly knowledgeable about their subject, but also about international relations in general. They were really dedicated. They were very committed. You know, I worked for six presidents, but there’s lots of people who can say that who work for Republican and Democratic presidents.
Rosenberg: Didn’t matter.
Jacobson: Right. It really didn’t. And we were also lucky to some extent in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs and then Western Hemisphere Affairs when we had Canada join us, because for a very long time, there was a bipartisan consensus on very large aspects of our policy. From about Bush 41 through, I would say, most of President Obama, there was a very big consensus on pro-democracy, pro open markets and free trade, pro human rights, and counternarcotics policies, which at times have been controversial but have evolved to be very much partnerships such as Plan Colombia and others in Latin America. And so while there were controversies, certainly on Cuba, on other aspect of Latin America policy, there were broad swaths of it that didn’t change dramatically from one president to the next, even with a change in party. And that, I think, is enormously helpful to those of us who work on the policy. But I do think that the people I encountered from young officers to seasoned veterans, one of my other mentors was Jeff Davidow, who replaced Alec Watson as the Assistant Secretary and then was Ambassador to Mexico. He was a remarkable man as well. Very funny. Great sense of humor, somewhat irreverent, but deeply knowledgeable about both Latin America and Africa, where he had served Many diplomats at the State Department have at least two regions that they know well. They go back and forth between regions, which is very helpful because there are similarities. There are lessons learned that you can take elsewhere. You don’t want to become too stove piped in what you do. But I also had some remarkable women who were mentors to me. Donna Hrinak, a four-time ambassador in Latin America ending in Brazil. Anne Patterson also, I think a four-time ambassador. She was in El Salvador, Colombia, Pakistan, Egypt, and then the Assistant Secretary for the Middle East. You know, these are remarkable women who helped me believe that I could do almost anything at the State Department.
Rosenberg: Well, you did almost everything, but that’s. But you came out of a different Cordray, and we touched on that earlier. You came from the civil service side of the State Department. Was that helpful? Was that unhelpful or was that a neutral?
Jacobson: It was complicated, I think is the answer. It meant I served overseas three times in my career once very briefly in Argentina, where I had also done my master’s research. So I was substituting for folks in the political section over one summer.
Rosenberg: So Argentina was your first posting abroad?
Jacobson: Right. But it was only a couple of months. My second, though, was much more complicated. I was Deputy Chief of Mission in Peru from 2000 to 2002. And as a civil servant, that’s really unusual.
Rosenberg: Well, first, let’s define the term. What does it mean to be a deputy chief of mission?
Jacobson: Yeah, it’s a great question, because a deputy chief of mission is a little bit like the CEO, the chief operating officer. Yes. You have to know the substantive issues, be able to substitute for the ambassador when they’re not there. You know, obviously be knowledgeable about the policy issues, but a lot of your job is running the embassy.
Rosenberg: So the chief of mission is the ambassador?
Jacobson: Yes, chief of mission is the ambassador. And the deputy chief of mission is the number two in embassies and missions. And so you’ve got to keep the trains running on time. You got to make sure you’re within budget. You’ve got to make sure that your consular sections are attending to Americans and processing visas well. And that’s a big job. And over the years, both by legislation and by regulation and practice, we’ve heaped more and more titles on our deputy chief of mission as embassies have grown from perhaps solely State Department operations to now multi-agency operations. You’ve long had the Defense Department, military attaches as part of embassies. You’ve actually had the FBI as part of embassy’s legal attaches for now over 75 years.
Rosenberg: So, you’re not talking about 30 people. You’re talking about 30 agents under the roof of the ambassador?
Jacobson: Correct. And in many cases, what you have is a bit of a dual hierarchy in the sense that your agency chiefs—DEA, Marshals Service, FBI—they work for the chief of mission, but they also work for their agency in Washington. And my experience was that in all of the embassies I either supervised or worked in, the chief of missions role was really critical to agencies, very much saw that as their chief executive officer. But there are crucial things that your ambassador can’t do. We don’t have control of those budgets. We don’t have control entirely of hiring and firing. But when I went to Peru in 2000, asked by the ambassador to be his deputy chief of mission, a longtime—
Rosenberg: John Hamilton.
Jacobson: Foreign Service officer, John Hamilton, who was a fantastic ambassador in both Peru and Guatemala. That was a big issue. Could he have a deputy chief of mission who was a civil servant?
Rosenberg: So why was that a big issue?
Jacobson: The American Foreign Service Association, which is the labor organization representing foreign service officers, which negotiates a labor management agreement with the State Department, has long been very protective. I think justifiably of positions being for the professional foreign service officers. They felt very strongly in this case that this violated the labor management agreement, that it should be professional foreign service officers. And what they said was we have no objection to civil servants being ambassadors. We’re used to political ambassadors or career ambassadors. But the deputy chief of mission role is often the highest one to which foreign service officers can aspire and should not be given to civil servants.
Rosenberg: So it sounds a bit counterintuitive. You could be the number one person, but you couldn’t be the number two.
Jacobson: Yeah. Exactly. Which was interesting. The fact was that although I understood why they were protective of this position, I had a long history in Latin America working within the State Department on this subject, I was a subject matter expert. But I also didn’t think it was going to open the floodgates to lots of civil servants wanting these positions. Civil servants make up a pretty fair percentage of the State Department.
Rosenberg: Almost half, I think.
Jacobson: Yeah, that’s changed over the years. I want to get to that in a second. In the case of being the deputy chief of mission, I hadn’t sought the job, but I was within the Latin American Bureau of the State Department for my whole career. And I also didn’t think it was going to open the floodgates to lots of civil servants seeking that job. Civil servants in general are civil servants, as opposed to foreign service officers, because they want to be based in Washington. So, it was complicated. AFSA, the American Foreign Service Association—which is the Foreign Service, Labor Organization, Labor Union, if you will—they brought a grievance case against the assignment. And I had already gone to Peru with the blessing of the then director general, the head of personnel of the State Department. I had moved with my husband, my 11-month-old and my 3-year-old to Peru to do this job because I had been asked to do it. And they went to an entity called the Foreign Service Grievance Board, which at that time ruled against me and said I would need to leave—
Rosenberg: Because you weren’t foreign service?
Jacobson: Because they said it was a violation of the labor management agreement. In the end, Madeleine Albright, who was the secretary at the time, had the ability to overturn the Foreign Service Grievance Board decision, which she did. And what she decided was that for foreign policy reasons, it would be a bad idea to remove me. And I’ll tell you why in a second, but that I would get a two-year tour instead of the three-year tour, which was normal for the deputy chief of Mission, which was fine with me. I was happy to be able to stay, but it was a very difficult period.
Rosenberg: Did you enjoy it?
Jacobson: I loved the job. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. And it was interesting because when I first got there, one of the officers in the embassy in Peru in our administrative section, he was a longtime foreign service officer, older than me, and he was very opposed to my having been appointed. That was pretty clear to me when I got there. When he left before I did, he told me he thought I was the best DCM, deputy chief of mission, he had worked for. And to me, that was the best thing that I could have heard, right? That somebody who had an open enough mind to judge me on how I worked, not where I came from. By the end was convinced that we had worked really well together and that I had done a good job. I think that’s ultimately the goal. But it was a really difficult time in Peru. I like to tell people that it was two years and three presidents. It was when President Fujimori fled the country for Japan under a cloud of corruption allegations. There was an interim president for a year. That was the reason that Secretary Albright could say that a change in deputy chief of mission was not productive for U.S. policy. But I think for civil servants over the years, it’s always been a very mixed blessing. They come to the State Department because they really do want to do foreign affairs work. They’re very committed to that. But they don’t have the same system that the foreign service does. Remember that the foreign service, like the military, is rank in person, meaning your rank is not dependent on the job you hold. It is personal rank and it’s an up or out system. If you don’t get promoted in a certain number of years, you may be forced out into retirement. Whereas a civil servant, like in all of the rest of U.S. government agencies, your rank is in the position. You can only be promoted if you move to a higher-level job, and you could theoretically stay there for 20, 25 years. And so there is always a tension between the foreign service and the civil service in that foreign service officers have that greater pressure to move up into more and more demanding jobs.
Rosenberg: And so you are taking one of those jobs.
Jacobson: Exactly. Exactly. And I could see why that was a concern. What I was surprised at was both the vehemence and negative. I got emails and nasty letters from people I didn’t even know. On the other hand, there were people in the foreign service who I’d never met who were staunch defenders of the right of experts to take the best person for the job or in a long tradition in the foreign service, an ambassador pick his or her deputy chief of mission.
Rosenberg: It’s interesting you say that, Roberta, because I saw that at the FBI and the DEA. That special agents for many years had certain jobs to which they aspired to which they were promoted. That had seemed like jobs that had been set aside just for that cadre. If they were the best person for the job, wonderful. But often from the non-agent community, you had people who might be a better budget officer, or human resources officer. And there was some tension.
Jacobson: You’re in organizations that have, in a sense, dual tracks. There’s agents in this case equivalent of foreign service officers who justifiably feel themselves sort of the elite. In a sense, they’ve gone through that rigorous process of getting in and of moving up through a career ladder. That’s not easy to do.
Jacobson: But in the end, I think we are all served if management, the senior cadre looks at the best person for the job. But this was a tough time for a lot of civil servants over the years. I became a mentor to probably hundreds of both civil service and foreign service officers, some of whom would come to me and say, I’m a civil servant and I want to be the next Roberta Jacobson. And I said, Well, you ought to aspire to more than that, first of all. But second of all, I’m one of the things you need to understand is you’re not entitled to anything. And that’s true of either cadre. Nothing is your right or your entitlement. You got to work for it. And if you are the best and you’re recognized as that, then hopefully you will get that next job. But any expectation of entitlement on either of those cadre’s part is really, it seems to me, is going to doom your success as a really good officer and you know, your advancement.
Rosenberg: So as part of a compromise, you stayed in Peru for two rather than three years.
Rosenberg: What did you do when you came back?
Jacobson: I came back to the department. And I knew I wanted to go back to the Western Hemisphere Bureau. That was my home. And I worked with the deputy assistant secretaries and the assistant secretary at the time. And we both agreed that I would become the director of Mexican affairs. And for me, that was a little bit of a hard decision. I had kind of avoided Mexico in my career. I thought Mexico was just too complicated, potentially too political, too “intermestic,” as I described it earlier. And I didn’t know that much about Mexico. I had always worked on South America, but that was a place where they felt they could justify a civil service director, which had largely been foreign service. But they felt the Mexico relationship was such that continuity and some institutional memory was useful. And for me, I thought, you know what? It’s a really good idea to learn new things, to get involved in new areas. And I ought to know more about Mexico if I’m going to call myself a Latin Americanist. As I became the director of Mexican affairs when I came back in 2002 and it began a love affair with Mexico, that has not ended.
Rosenberg: So before you become the ambassador to Mexico, you are the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. That’s a big job. So first of all, structurally what is it?
Jacobson: The assistant secretary position is the person in charge of all of our relationships with the Americas, and we changed it to Western Hemisphere from the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs when we added Canada to the bureau during the Clinton administration. Not always an easy transition. Canada, of course, as a NATO country had been part of our European bureau for years. But it now meant you were in charge of everything from Canada down to Tierra del Fuego, except for the United States. Includes the Caribbean, etc.
Rosenberg: So, huge and vitally important area.
Jacobson: I told people that I remember looking at my performance evaluation the first year I was assistant secretary and one of the things in the job description was how many people I was theoretically supervising and that number was ten thousand eight hundred thirty, which was a little daunting.
Rosenberg: Give or take.
Jacobson: Exactly. You know, we have 25 or 27 missions in the region. It’s 34 countries. It’s a huge number, not only of State Department diplomats working in the region, but local employees, people from the country in which we have our embassy who are working at our embassies and consulates and of course, including the 200 or so who worked in DC and our administrative regional office, which is in Florida. So it was a very big job. I was the first woman appointed to that position, which is striking in a sense, because you think about the fact that Roseann Ridgeway, who was the first regional assistant secretary, we talk about regional bureaus in the State Department, of which there are six European affairs, Western Hemisphere affairs, East Asia Pacific affairs, et cetera, and functional bureaus, which are international narcotics and law enforcement, the Bureau of Consular Affairs, et cetera, that are global. But in the regional bureaus, which are the ones that supervise embassies and consulates. There, Roseann Ridgeway was the first woman assistant secretary in European affairs. I think in the late 70s while before I came into the department, and yet there were still bureaus that had not had a woman assistant secretary. This was interesting to me. It is a big job. I was very lucky in that in my front office, that is to say, the assistant secretary and the deputy assistant secretaries. I had extraordinary foreign service officers and political appointees who were really knowledgeable about the region and therefore made the job a heck of a lot easier.
Rosenberg: Was the assistant secretary job one open to civil servants and foreign service officers?
Jacobson: In that case, in part because there had been alternating and over the years, both political appointees and foreign service officers, I don’t think there had been a civil servant before who was, actually I’m sure there had not been a civil servant who was the head of a regional bureau. But there was really no controversy over that. That position was seen as open to whoever the secretary of state and the president wished for the job.
Rosenberg: So with the responsibility for almost three dozen countries, and you said 25 to 27 missions in those countries, I assume you’re traveling all the time?
Jacobson: Yeah, I did a whole lot of travel at that point. I loved the travel even when I felt that, you know, I was going someplace where the trip might not be that productive. I can remember a trip to Ecuador I made during my tenure when we were having grave difficulties with Ecuador under President Correa, the past president. And I had to meet with the foreign minister, who was perhaps one of the most anti-American of his cabinet.
Rosenberg: What was the nature of the difficulties?
Jacobson: Well, ideological in some sense. This was an administration that was much more aligned with Cuba, with Russia. It was quite leftist. We had had some good relationships, for example, on counternarcotics efforts, especially off the coast of Ecuador, where there was shipping of narcotics going on, which they had tried to shut down because they were not comfortable with some of those relationships that we wanted to have with their military or their police. And so it was very difficult. There had been lots of anti-American statements made by this foreign minister. It was subsequently complicated by Julian Assange being in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and the release of the State Department documents by WikiLeaks. So it was very, very complicated. But every trip I made, I learned something. Even in the bubble of an assistant secretary moving around, I felt like I had an opportunity to talk to people who enriched my knowledge. And even in those conversations, which were not always easy, I felt like I was contributing. And that’s what’s so great about the job.
Rosenberg: And we should be clear, I mean, for the innumerable foreign policy successes we’ve had, we’ve had foreign policy failures, too.
Jacobson: And I think for those of us who have worked in Latin America, there’s a hangover of some of the most controversial policies in the region that persists. Whether that is intervention in Guatemala under the Arbenz government in 1954 and anticommunism, intervention by the United States or Chile under Pinochet later years, or the U.S. policy of support for human rights that developed out of Pat Derian, who was assistant secretary of human rights, the first assistant secretary for human rights, under Jimmy Carter, and the promotion of human rights in places like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, under military governments. That is a very positive legacy in some respects, but a legacy of interventionism during the Cold War by the United States is still present in many memories there, as well as the U.S. siding with governments against leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, in Guatemala, support for the Contras outside of Nicaragua, but against the regime, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. There is a lot of history in Latin America that isn’t forgotten. And so we as diplomats have to be aware of that history and not be bound by it or constrained by it, but also be aware that some of our interlocutors, when we’re having these conversations, are coming to the table with a whole lot of baggage that we need to understand if we hope to advance our interests and not have a five minute meeting that ends up with everyone walking out of the room.
Rosenberg: Which is why it’s so important to have a cadre of people who are deeply experienced in their region.
Jacobson: I think that’s incredibly important. You cannot succeed if you don’t understand your opposite number. I’ve often said working on Mexico that Mexicans remember their history every day. The loss of half of their territory to the United States in the mid 19th century is something that’s very present to them. And the invasion of Mexico and Vera Cruz in earlier years. Americans, we are by nature, in some respects forgetful of our history. We start every day a new it is both a wonderful and an irritating quality that we think everyone should just get over the past and start a clean slate. Perhaps the best would be decent meet in the middle, being respectful of our history and understanding it, but not necessarily bound by it forever.
Rosenberg: After you served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, President Obama nominated you to be the United States Ambassador to Mexico. But there is some opposition to that. And as I understand it, it turned on a role you played in trying to open relations between the United States and Cuba a little bit earlier in your career. Can you talk about that?
Jacobson: In December of 2014? President Obama and Raul Castro in Cuba both announced simultaneously that they had been having negotiations behind the scenes and that they were committed to restoring diplomatic relations after 54 years and beginning to engage with each other in a different way. This was stunning to a lot of people. That is to say, I had known for some months that there were conversations going on. I was not involved in those negotiations. They were between the White House and National Security Council and the Cubans. But I had been brought into that a little bit earlier because part of the announcement in December of 2014 needed the State Department and indeed our mission in Havana, because we had had an intersection in Havana, which is a diplomatic presence that is not an embassy. When you don’t have full diplomatic relations. We needed both myself for the State Department and our mission in Havana to be involved, because one of the conditions and the agreements in terms of opening diplomatic relations was the release of an American who had been in prison at that point at least two years, maybe a little bit longer, Alan Gross, unfairly, we believed in Havana. And he was to be released the day of that announcement and flown back to the United States. So I listened to part of the announcement in my office. But then I got in my car and headed out to Andrews Air Force Base to greet Alan Gross when he came back from Cuba, which was an incredibly emotional experience. That announcement in December of 2014 turned the matter over from the White House and the National Security Council to the State Department to do the next phase, which was OK, now, you sit down with the Cubans and you negotiate full diplomatic relations.
Rosenberg: And you were asked to lead that delegation to negotiate that next phase?
Jacobson: I was indeed asked to lead that effort. Interestingly, when we sat down on the U.S. side at the State Department to think about, OK, what does an agreement with Cuba look like to reopen diplomatic relations? What is required? I somewhat naively said to my colleagues in the office of the legal adviser, which is really the font of all knowledge on international treaties and opening embassies, what are our privileges and immunities, diplomatic immunities, et cetera. I said to them, OK. Is there a template? What’s standard and what we need? I mean, after all, we’ve reopened diplomatic relations with Vietnam. We’ve reopened diplomatic relations with Libya. There must be a template. And they said, no, there’s really no standard form. There are two conventions, Vienna Conventions on diplomatic privileges and responsibilities, and one on consular relations which govern our interactions with foreign countries. But there’s no standard and those were quite a while ago, so we really need to start from scratch. So the main mission we had was what are the things that we will require as the United States for Cuba to say yes to, to have full diplomatic relations, because although President Obama, President Raul Castro have now agreed, we know what the end point is, but we have to figure out what the roadmap is.
Rosenberg: So, the President sets the policy. They articulate the vision. You have to implement that, you have to build the structure.
Jacobson: Exactly. What is required, what are the steps we must take?
Rosenberg: It sounds quite complicated.
Jacobson: It was in some ways because we didn’t have a road map and we had to sit down and think about what are the things that have restricted our movement in Cuba? What are the rights and responsibilities we’re going to want Cuba to allow us? But also what it meant was what are the requirements of the United States to work as an embassy in what’s called a non-permissive environment to work in a country which really isn’t an ally—it’s not a Cold War enemy—but it’s not going to be a friend right away. So we came up with a set of requirements and we went to Havana for our first negotiating round in January of 2015 with a good deal of trepidation about what we would encounter. To get to Havana from the United States certainly at that time, and it’s going back to this now, you have to go through Miami, which, of course, is an area where Cuban-Americans have lived for decades. And I was unclear how people would react to this.
Rosenberg: How did they react?
Jacobson: It was fascinating to me because some of the change in the Cuban-American community is generational. Some is not. In preparing to go to Havana with some of my colleagues on the negotiating team, a local station began filming us at the check in counter at the airport, which seemed a little boring. But one of my colleagues went to deliver the luggage to the place where they needed to get it ready to go on the charter. And I had a nametag on my suitcase from many secretarial and presidential travel. The man doing the luggage said, is this Roberta Jacobson, who’s going to Cuba to negotiate with the Cubans? I wasn’t there. My colleague said with some nervousness. Yes, it is. And he said, Tell her, “que dios bendiga.” In Spanish. Tell her God bless her. And we’re very proud. And this was startling. And I got that in a number of locations. And then I went to Havana and I got the same thing from Cubans that I met. There was an atmosphere that was sort of electric among average Cubans who really, really hoped that this would change their lives. I had been to Cuba before. I had found surprising the depth and the warmth of engagement with the United States in the way they liked Americans. Even after all these years of animosity. We sat down to negotiate in the convention center in Havana in a room roughly the size of a football field, it seemed. Ridiculously large for the number of people who were negotiating. There were maybe 20 on each side with our tables. I don’t know, 25 feet away from one another facing each other. And part of that, I think, was designed to ensure we would use the interpreters because it meant that interpretation gives you time to think and also slows things down so that the Cubans could make their points and think about ours. The media came in to do what’s called a pool spray just to take some pictures at the very beginning. And there were massive numbers of media. I had never experienced anything like that. And my press advisor, as we went into the meeting said, remember not too smiley. Because it is a natural instinct, I think, for diplomats when you’re starting a negotiation to sort of want to present one of openness and warmth. This was a very fraught negotiation. It wasn’t the usual conversation between friends. And so we didn’t want to present a very sort of warm and fuzzy picture with our Cuban colleagues. My opposite number was a woman in the Cuban foreign ministry named Josefina Vidal.
Rosenberg: She was the head of the Cuban delegation.
Jacobson: Right. The press was fascinated by this. Two women heading the negotiations. She was roughly my age. She was extremely hard line. She had come from a family in Santiago that grew in the east of the country, which was very revolutionary and in fact, had supported an and housed Fidel and Raul during the revolution.
Rosenberg: She also has a mandate from her President to implement his vision.
Jacobson: Correct. It is very interesting. Right. Those first negotiations are often, as I think they are, they are a little bit formulaic. Everybody has to say what they have to say. We had to be lectured on the repression of human rights in the United States and our interventionism in Latin America, et cetera. And we had to say things about Cuban violations of human rights and what was going to be required to make this work. So I would say those first negotiations were interesting and useful—
Rosenberg: But, scripted.
but scripted. Exactly, but formulaic. I made sure that in the second round of negotiations we were in a relatively small room in the State Department because the room we had been in was not conducive to having a real conversation, that we were sitting much closer together. And it was interesting because at the end of that round, my counterpart said to me, you know, this really worked much better. I think the next time we talk, we’ll do it in a different place in Havana. It’s always a combination of substantive preparation and making sure you understand what the response to what you’re asking is likely to be and how do you parry, etc. and psychological.
Rosenberg: But also understanding what the person on the other side of the table needs and wants and what pressures are on them.
Jacobson: But in a negotiating posture. Understanding that compromise is not a dirty word. We understood going in that we might ask for the whole enchilada, in the words of some, a maximalist position, but we also understood what we were ready to accept, which might not be the whole thing and a point beyond which we were not prepared to cede. And I think that’s really important that you understand that going in.
Rosenberg: What happened?
It took us about five rounds of negotiation and a little over six months. But we came to an agreement. Some things were harder than we expected, other things easier. One of the sidelines to this, because we considered it not part of the negotiations per say, was the question of taking Cuba off the state sponsor of terrorism list. Cuba had been on that list for a long time.
Rosenberg: And they wanted to get off.
Jacobson: And they wanted to get off for lots of different reasons. The reasons they had been kept on were very had been reduced over the years because they were not really sponsoring terrorist movements in the region. But it remained the case that they were harboring members of the FARC, the antigovernment terrorists leftist group in Colombia. And members of ETA, the Spanish separatist group. In fact, the Colombians were negotiating with the FARC in Havana during the same period that we were there. So it was relatively easy to talk to the Colombians and to make a statement that the Colombians no longer objected to FARC presence in Havana because they were negotiating with them now. And we thought it would not be hard to ask the Spanish to do the same because they had full diplomatic relations with Cuba and they had not been impeded in that by the members of ETA. And we ran into surprising opposition from the Spanish. And so something I never expected to be difficult became much more complicated. We worked through all of that. We came to agreements. Secretary Kerry had meetings with his counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, the foreign secretary. Obviously, everything had to be approved in this Cuban case by Raul Castro himself. But in fact, a lot of our negotiations were, if not approved at every stage by the White House, we certainly kept them very much informed given that these were presidential decisions.
Rosenberg: When did the two presidents sit down and first meet?
Jacobson: In 2015 at the Periodic Summit of the Americas in Panama, something Cuba had not attended previously he trappings of that, it was an important meeting substantively, but it was a much more important meeting in its history making.
Jacobson: Yeah. And really, that had paved the way for the agreement to be finalized and for diplomatic relations to be opened after 54 years. One of the things that I found really moving was the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. The same building that had been the intersection and originally been the embassy. We took with us two of the Marines who had been the last Marines to leave the embassy in Havana in 1961 and who had lowered the flag. And they handed the flag to the current Marines at the now U.S. embassy in Havana to raise it. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at that point. It was really very moving.
Rosenberg: It must have been remarkable.
Jacobson: It was an amazing, amazing ceremony, an amazing experience and something I’ll never forget.
Rosenberg: What’s the status now?
Jacobson: Well, unfortunately, things have moved backwards a little bit. I would tell you that in the years since the announcement was made and 2014, you have the announcement of the opening of diplomatic relations. And by 2017, President Trump restricted some of the opening. But in those years of opening, I don’t believe that the Cuban government took advantage of the opening in the way they could have. There’s a lot of fear in the old guard about losing control. There is greater access to information in Cuba through internet. There are private businesses now, but there’s so much more in those areas that could have been done. That hasn’t been. And the restriction of individual travel, which had been greatly eased under the Obama opening, and has now been restricted again to having an explicit license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control in Treasury Department, which licenses travel to places like Cuba or elsewhere. That restriction, I think, has really set back the engagement between Cubans and Americans. And we just have not seen as many changes in Cuba as we’d like on human rights, on opening politically.
Rosenberg: Ironically, your work in Cuba made it more difficult for you to become the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, didn’t it?
Jacobson: Yeah. And I should say that, in fact, it had made it more difficult for me to become the assistant secretary, because as principal deputy assistant secretary in Western Hemisphere, I had actually led the migration talks with Cuba before the opening of diplomatic relations, which had been going on since the Clinton administration. We had come to an agreement with Cuba under the Clinton administration that for the first time we would return to Cuba. People who were intercepted on the high seas that is not in Cuban territory and not in U.S. territory attempting to migrate to the United States, if they were not judged to be refugees, that is fleeing persecution, but in fact, were economic migrants. And that was a big change that we would return people to Cuba if they were all economic migrants. So I had actually been leading some of those talks. Some of this involved the attempt to get fugitives from U.S. justice back to the United States. Some of it was on the migration talk themselves and how the returnees were being treated. Some of it was an attempt to try and do counternarcotics work with Cuba. And there was opposition. I was held up for about six months before I became assistant secretary, in part because of things I did in the migration talks and then held up again for 10 months before I was confirmed.
Rosenberg: So, when you say held up, you mean by a member of the United States Senate?
Jacobson: And it is the right of a member of the U.S. Senate to hold and one senator can hold a nomination. So that sometimes does happen.
Rosenberg: Eventually you’re confirmed as the United States ambassador to Mexico. That’s a really cool job.
Jacobson: It’s an incredibly cool job. And I have to say that the only two jobs they ever really knew I wanted at the State Department were the assistant secretary position and U.S. ambassador to Mexico. So here I am incredibly lucky to have, have gotten both. But U.S. Ambassador, Mexico is just the coolest job. Honestly, it’s a great job.
Rosenberg: So first, I have to ask you, because our podcast is called The Oath about your swearing in ceremony to become ambassador. Where was it?
Jacobson: My swearing in was in the Benjamin Franklin room at the State Department on the the 8th floor, the diplomatic reception area. It’s a spectacular room. It was Vice President Biden who swore me in for that job. That was the third time I had taken the oath. The first time was when I joined the State Department, of course. Second time was as assistant secretary. And this was the third time. It was a wonderful experience. It was beautiful.
Rosenberg: What do you remember about it?
Jacobson: I remember a couple of things. One is joking about my relationship with Vice President Biden. I had accompanied him on, I think, 18 or 19 trips to Latin America. We had really had a great relationship where I sometimes challenged him and sometimes tried to say that maybe he shouldn’t do something one way or another. But in the end, he really cared deeply about the region. He became very much our point person on important issues and how incredibly honored I was that he had said yes to doing my swearing in. I thought also about, which I had thought about at my first swearing in, how much I wished my parents could have seen it. Both of them have been gone for quite a while, and they would be incredibly proud. And then how many people standing in that room from the State Department over the years, retired current junior officers. How many of them I just loved working with and how much my success and taking of that oath was because of them.
Rosenberg: I’ve always noticed that the swearing in ceremony is a justice at state. Wherever have a sort of a communal or community aspect to it.
Jacobson: It brings your worlds together, right? Your family, your friends, your colleagues. There were so many members of the diplomatic community there because I had been assistant secretary for the region. All of the region’s ambassadors knew me and many of them came to the swearing in. I think I said either at my first or my second swearing in. I had to thank my children who were there for both, because over the years they’re the ones who sometimes got short changed. And I thanked them for always being the kids who signed up for plastic cutlery at school events because they knew mom wasn’t going to have time to bake on the days’ notice. You know, so it’s very much a community event and it’s very much I thought and I’ve seen this very often. It is very much an appreciation of the family members in this case, my husband and my children who made it possible.
Rosenberg: After this wonderful ceremony, you have to go to Mexico City and run the embassy. What’s that like?
Jacobson: Little overwhelming even for somebody who ran the regional bureau.
Rosenberg: You mentioned that Mexico City was the largest embassy in the world in terms of the number of U.S. agencies who were working out of it.
Rosenberg: How many personnel do you have there?
Jacobson: It’s about 2,500 total. About a thousand or a little more than that are in Mexico City and the rest are in the nine consulates that we have in Mexico.
Rosenberg: All reporting to you.
Rosenberg: And to your deputy chief of mission.
Rosenberg: And who was that?
Jacobson: Ah, my deputy chief of mission was the greatest, I have to say, a guy named William Duncan, who actually has been at State Department probably almost as long as I have. He’s a lawyer, came out of a background in the Navy JAG Corps, also worked in the general counsel’s office in the Chicago area for EPA and then came into the Foreign Service. And he knows Mexico probably better than almost anyone else, I know he’s actually currently on his fourth tour in Mexico as our consul general in Monterrey. But just a superb deputy, somebody who understands the law enforcement issue, who understands management and how to keep things running in such a huge mission. I was very lucky we had worked together before. So although he was there when I arrived, he is who I would have picked anyway. And so I was really, really grateful to him.
Rosenberg: Say a little bit about the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. We’ve heard so much about it, but what is it and why does it matter?
Jacobson: It was the first free trade agreement in the world that incorporated both the developed, if you will, and the developing world. We had a free trade agreement with Canada from 1991, so that predates NAFTA. But the inclusion of Mexico into this free trade area, a lot of people were skeptical about that. They thought free trade agreement would be productive if made among, if you will, economic equals. That is to say, sort of the same level of development. But they weren’t sure that this would really work. I think it was quite visionary of Mexican President Salinas, Brian Mulroney in Canada, and George H.W. Bush to understand that—and then President Clinton after him during ratification—to understand that this was a way. To both solidify Mexico’s commitment to North America, to looking north, not just south. And to raise the wages and the living standards of Mexicans such that North America really could be a sort of an economic powerhouse. I think one of the things that’s important to understand about NAFTA was it wasn’t just commercial. It wasn’t just economic. It was also a vision of North America as integrated for the benefit of all of its people. And frankly, of changing Mexico to be bound to the United States and Canada through common values, through this integration process, and to make us all stronger as a result. And it resulted, indeed, in a more than quadrupling of our trade relationship to a point where now a billion point seven dollars in trade crosses the U.S. Mexican border every day.
Rosenberg: It is an astonishing number.
Jacobson: It is a level of integration that has really helped both of us, which is not always understood. We talk a lot about the auto industry and understanding the displacement that that has created in the United States, but also the benefits of integration. What we don’t always understand is that there are lots of other sectors that are integrated. I was in Mexico and was having a conversation with the head of the Dairy Export Promotion Board from the United States, who said to me when we were negotiating the USMCA, the U.S. Mexico Canada agreement that will, if ratified by the United States and Canada, replace NAFTA or sometimes called NAFTA 2.0. He said to me, what you may not understand is that the dairy industry between the U.S. and Mexico is very integrated. And if we don’t continue with some form of a treaty like USMCA, the Mexicans may go elsewhere for their dairy products. New Zealand and Australia are becoming very aggressive in trying to do that. And I said, but surely given geography, you know, Australia and New Zealand can’t provide the same dairy products that the United States can. And he said, well, yes, they can actually, because it’s all powdered milk. We don’t always understand the way in which American farmers, whether it’s corn or dairy farmers or others and so many other parts of our economy are dependent on our trade with Mexico.
Rosenberg: You mentioned an astonishing number, the one point seven billion in trade that crosses the U.S. Mexico border every day. But I remember from an article you wrote about a year ago, another astonishing number for more than half of the states in the United States, Mexico is the largest or second largest destination for their exports.
Jacobson: Correct. And for 33 states out of 50, it is the first, second or third rights, depending on how you look at it. That is another thing that’s not always understood. It isn’t just the four border states, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California who have a huge dependence on the relationship with Mexico. It’s Illinois. It’s Iowa because of corn. North Carolina and other places because of pork and chicken. It’s manufactured products as well. So I think, you know, when we look at who benefits from this integration, we need to understand that it’s really fairly broadly spread across the United States. And one of the things that has already helped the United States economically and will help even more is the growth of the middle class in Mexico, because that middle class demands products, including those from the United States or especially those from the United States, that middle class has grown in Mexico. And it teeters on the brink of being a majority middle class country. And that’s really where we want Mexico to go, not just because it’s good for Mexicans. It is, of course, if they can raise standards of living, but because they’re also consumers of American products. So it’s good for us, too.
Rosenberg: Of course. And becoming more of a middle-class country and having a middle class economy. I assume also has ramifications for the immigration issue.
Jacobson: Absolutely. There’s two things that have affected immigration over the years from Mexico. One is obviously increasing living standards. That is significant, although poverty has been stubborn in Mexico and some of those numbers have not decreased as much as Mexican leaders would like, obviously. The other is demographic. We know from studies on demography that people tend not to migrate illegally or without documents after about age 35. They’ve made a life, wherever they are, they may move internally in Mexico, but they don’t tend to cross the border without documents after that age. Mexico is now a graying population. It doesn’t have a youth bulge anymore. And that’s a big reason why we’ve seen the number of Mexican migrants go down over the past five years or so and other countries numbers go up.
Rosenberg: Now, there’s an interesting parallel from my Justice Department world. People don’t tend to commit crimes once they turn 30 or 35.
Jacobson: No, I think that’s exactly right. And we also see that obviously in the State Department are in our consular world. Right? We know that older people, a consular officer, when they’re deciding on issuing a visa, has to think first and foremost about whether this person is an intending immigrant, and the older you are, the more likely you’re going to get that visa because the less likely you are to be an intending immigrant with a tourist visa.
Rosenberg: By intending you mean someone who in turn, who intends to come?
Jacobson: Who intends to come and stay rather than visit when you’re getting a visitor’s visa. It’s very interesting. Those numbers have gone down significantly, those of Mexicans coming to the United States, while obviously at the same time the number of Central Americans coming to the United States has increased as a percentage of the whole.
Rosenberg: What are the other issues, Roberta, going forward for relations between the United States and Mexico?
Jacobson: The first one that Mexico thinks about, and I think it’s critical, too, is to follow up on our conversation about the about NAFTA ratification by the United States of this the second NAFTA, if you will, the next phase, USMCA say things like the digital economy and energy weren’t included in the original NAFTA either because they were too politically sensitive in the case of energy for Mexico or because they didn’t exist. So that’s critical. But going forward, obviously, the thing I think is most critical and isn’t getting as much attention, although unfortunately it has more recently with a number of tragic events in Mexico is the security issue. And some of that is counter narcotics. Right. It’s the cartels, but some of it isn’t. It’s a presence of the state and an expansion of rule of law issue. I’m extremely concerned right now because I don’t see that Mexico has a really well thought out security strategy, vacillating between using its military to do operations in Mexico, which it has for a number of years. And the current president’s belief that, as he puts it, hugs, not bullets, will resolve this problem.
Rosenberg: You referred to the current Mexican President.
Jacobson: Yes. Yes. Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, who’s been president for almost a year. But it’s very interesting, because I think what we’re facing right now with Mexico, as with many other countries, but much more acute with Mexico because of our closeness physically and otherwise, are transnational problems, are problems that can’t be solved by one country alone. That is true of narcotics trafficking. It’s true of environmental problems and climate. It’s true of health issues. When we had Zika or, you know, H1N1, the flu virus a few years ago, you can’t resolve those problems. They don’t respect borders and you can’t resolve them without cooperation between the two countries. And right now, unfortunately, I see a lot of attention on migration. I see a lot of attention on trade. But the rest of the panoply of issues, I’m afraid, are not getting the kind of high-level attention that they need.
Rosenberg: Are you an optimist?
Jacobson: Always an optimist. And I’m always an optimist, in part because you don’t stay in government for 31 years if you’re not an optimist because you get discouraged and leave long before. When I was ambassador to Mexico, I would say to my staff if I was feeling particularly cynical or pessimistic, could you arrange a youth event, please, for me right away? Because inevitably when I met with Mexican young people, American young people working or studying in Mexico, I felt more optimistic.
Rosenberg: Made you feel better? Do you miss it?
Jacobson: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I don’t think it’s possible to do a job that I loved so much like the ambassador to Mexico position, regardless of how you leave that position. You do miss it. It’s stimulating every day. Every day is different. You feel as if some days you may feel what you do is more important than others, but you do feel like you’re part of something really important, that kind of mission driven job. I think anyone who’s worked in public service, you know well, is something very, really great to get up to every day.
Rosenberg: Even before I finally met you, Roberta, I had heard about you. And I think it’s fair to say I have never heard of anyone so deeply respected on both sides of the border for your expertise, the breadth of your knowledge and the way you treated people.
Jacobson: Oh, thank you, Chuck. I appreciate that. You know, one of the things I say is when people talk about me as a Mexico expert, I recoil slightly. I didn’t start working on Mexico till some years into my career, and it’s only been about less than 20 years I’ve been working on it. I often say I’m still a student of Mexico. This relationship is so complicated, is so broad and deep that I’m appreciative of that respect and that acknowledgement. But, I consider myself a student and I probably will be the rest of my life.
Rosenberg: You can be an expert and still have a lot to learn.
Jacobson: I think that’s right. I hope and curiosity to want to keep learning is an important part of this, I think.
Rosenberg: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with us.
Jacobson: It was great fun. Thank you.
Rosenberg: Yeah. It’s a real pleasure to have you here, Roberta.
Jacobson: Thanks, Chuck. I appreciate it.
Rosenberg: It was an honor to sit down with Roberta Jacobson, the former United States Ambassador to Mexico. Our relationship with that country is both complicated and crucial, and nobody knows more about Mexico than Roberta. For three decades, she served the State Department with honor, with integrity, and with a deep devotion to our nation. And she was beloved and respected on both sides of the border. That’s never easy for an Ambassador—one who must continuously advance the interests of her own country—the country to which she swore an oath, the United States, while being sensitive to the interests and needs of the country in which she serves. Roberta Jacobson was a distinguished public servant and a marvelous representative of the United States in Mexico and throughout the Americas.
With that, we are at the end of Season Two of the Oath. But, please hang on for another moment: I have a bunch of things I want to share with you.You – our wonderful listeners – have downloaded (collectively of course) more than 5 million episodes of our podcast. 4.6 million. Wow. More than 10,000 of you have contributed to our 5 Star rating on Apple Podcasts. More than 3000 of you have written to us at email@example.com – that’s all one word - and have shared with us wonderful ideas, thoughtful criticism, and generous encouragement.
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We are busy at work on season three of The Oath, and we plan to be back in early 2020. Make sure you are subscribed for that.
We’re going to see you again next year.
This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.