This past April, during the same Summit of the Americas where U.S. Secret Service agents frolicked with Colombian prostitutes — sparking a national scandal — Roberta Jacobson celebrated her birthday in style at a Havana-themed nightclub in Cartagena.
The party was made even more memorable by the surprise appearance of her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Jacobson admires deeply.
“I love working for this secretary. I’d like to work for her forever,” said the longtime civil servant who, on March 30, 2012, was sworn in as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
But her confirmation came only after a long, bitter fight in which Sen. Marco Rubio — a Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida and rising star within the Republican Tea Party movement — threatened to block Jacobson’s confirmation until the White House agreed to strictly enforce regulations on U.S. travel to Cuba.
In her first wide-ranging, sit-down media interview since taking office, this self-described “nice Jewish girl” and mother of two told The Washington Diplomat she’s incredibly lucky that the three dozen or so nations under her jurisdiction enjoy relative peace and prosperity.
“As much as people sometimes complain about us paying not enough attention to Latin America, the truth is that these countries are blessed not to have the same kinds of crises that other parts of the world are undergoing. Therefore they don’t get as much attention,” said Jacobson, whose predecessor, Arturo Valenzuela, also faced a bitter Senate confirmation battle. “Thank God we don’t have a massive refugee crisis or active wars. Most of what’s taking place in the hemisphere is very positive.”
Indeed it is. The International Monetary Fund expects Latin America’s economy to expand by 3.6 percent this year, compared to 3.3 percent globally and only 1.2 percent in advanced economies. Much of this growth is driven by commodity exports; soybeans and grains in the case of Argentina; gold and copper for Peru; and beef and rice when it comes to Uruguay. But a recent IMF report also highlights the expansion of Latin America’s middle class and consumption-led growth. In Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay, this sector has expanded an average of 14 percent a year since 2003.
“Even in a country like Paraguay, setting aside their most recent problems, they had 12 percent growth,” Jacobson said, alluding to the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo over the summer. “China’s growth is critical for so much of the world’s economy, though some will see slower growth this year because of lower commodity prices. Yet Latin American countries have managed their macroeconomic stewardship well, and 56 million people have entered the middle class as a result.”
Jacobson cautioned, though, that democracy must deliver when it comes to raising living standards across the board, especially in a part of the world long known for its deep income disparity between rich and poor.
“These countries all realize that reliance on commodities and especially on trade with China is also risky,” she added. “They’ve got to make sure their economies are diverse enough that this won’t be a boom that goes bust at some point.”
Raised in the New York suburb of Englewood, N.J., Jacobson attended Brown University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, working for the United Nations Secretariat after college. Her undergraduate thesis was on “Pre-Columbian Grave Robbing,” which focused on the theft of valuable Mayan artifacts. Later on, she worked at the U.N. Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Institute in Costa Rica.
“I decided to specialize in Latin America as an undergraduate for two very important reasons: one was I wanted to be able to speak the language. I originally wanted to do Asia, but had already begun to learn Spanish in school.”
The second reason, Jacobson explained, is that her undergraduate years — 1978 to 1982 — were marked by political upheaval throughout the region.
“Countries were beginning to return to democracy, moving out of authoritarian regimes,” she said. “When I went back to the Fletcher School, I did my master’s thesis on the Jewish community of Argentina during the dictatorship. I was based at the University of Belgrano and loved living in Buenos Aires. That was my first experience living in Latin America.”
In a sad irony, Jacobson did much of her research at AMIA — headquarters of the largest Jewish communal organization in Argentina. Less than a decade later, the building was destroyed in a powerful truck bomb that killed 85 people and injured more than 300. Iran is believed to be behind that blast, which came only two years after a similar bombing at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and which remains the worst single instance of terrorism in Latin American history.
Earlier this year, Jacobson — who’s traveled to every country in the hemisphere except Guyana, Suriname and Belize — returned to Argentina for the first time since her college days. The visit underscored an attempt by Washington to improve ties with the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner since the February 2011 seizure of a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane at a Buenos Aires airport amid allegations that the U.S. was attempting to smuggle arms, drugs and spy equipment into the country.
“There are lots of things we don’t agree on — obviously the security relationship has been largely frozen — but the fact is, there are a lot of things we do agree on,” Jacobson said of bilateral ties between the United States and Argentina. “We’ve had extraordinary cooperation on counterterrorism and educational issues. While there, I met with 13 university rectors and also signed a sister-parks agreement with Glaciares National Park.”
Of far greater concern to the Obama administration is Venezuela, where the Oct. 7 presidential election could return Hugo Chávez to power for another six years. Polls show the 58-year-old populist — elected in 1998 — maintains a clear edge over 40-year-old state governor Henrique Capriles, who’s running against Chávez on a united opposition ticket.
Asked whether Chávez, who has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment for an undisclosed cancer, will win — and if so by how much — Jacobson took a pass.
“I don’t necessarily predict the outcomes of elections. What we focus on is disappointment that the Venezuelan government has not and does not appear likely to invite major international observers. There are lots of ways in which the playing field is not necessarily level,” she said. “The Venezuelan people must have the opportunity to express themselves at the polls and be free to vote their consciences. Whether that brings Chávez re-election or not, that’s what we’d like to see. It will be difficult without the OAS, the Carter Center or the European Union for us to know.”
One thing’s for sure: The State Department isn’t going to send Jacobson down to Caracas anytime soon. Diplomatic relations have been frozen ever since December 2010, when the White House revoked the U.S. visa of then-Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, following Chávez’s outburst at the Obama administration’s choice of ambassador to Caracas, Larry Palmer.
“I don’t think we’re likely to have me go down there,” said Jacobson, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Peru. “There has to be enough to talk about. There have been a number of areas in which we have very much wanted to have further consultations, things we used to do fairly routinely — even with the Chávez administration — that they are no longer interested in, like counternarcotics.”
Jacobson said that as much as she’d like to see the United States restore full diplomatic relations with Venezuela, “we just don’t see much encouragement from the Chávez regime. Whether that’s likely to change after the elections, I don’t know.”
Things look slightly better when it comes to Bolivia, whose populist president, former coca grower Evo Morales, kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008. Last November, Morales told reporters that he still considers Philip Goldberg — the U.S. ambassador he expelled that year — to have “conspired” against Bolivia.
Even without the DEA being allowed back in, Jacobson says, “We have restarted our dialogue with Bolivia. We signed a framework agreement with them in January, which looks at three areas: counternarcotics, trade and foreign assistance. Step by step, we’re hopeful we can get to a better place with the Bolivians. We’ve also signed a tripartite agreement with Brazil and Bolivia. We feel the next step probably will be getting ambassadors back [in each other’s capitals]. From my perspective sitting here, that is a nearer thing with Bolivia than with Venezuela.”
No country in the Western Hemisphere, however, has a worse relationship with the United States than does Cuba — which since 1962 has been the target of a punishing U.S. trade embargo. Cuba is also one of only four countries on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (the others are Iran, Syria and Sudan).
Yet the United States is the only nation in the world to maintain an economic boycott of Cuba. Washington’s enemies in this hemisphere — not to mention many of its friends — have loudly condemned the 50-year-old embargo as anachronistic, useless and mean-spirited.
“There’s no doubt that our Cuba policy is not obviously in sync with the rest of the hemisphere,” Jacobson conceded. “It’s one of the reasons there was a considerable amount of huffing and puffing in the press about Cuba at the [Summit of the Americas], and how isolated we were on Cuba. I frankly thought some of that was a bit overwrought. And that’s not likely to change.”
President Obama has been both praised and pilloried in South Florida — home to more than 1 million Cuban exiles — for relaxing U.S. travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans hoping to visit family members on the island. Shortly after taking office, the White House reversed policies imposed by the Bush administration that restricted Cuban-Americans from visiting their families in Cuba to only once every three years.
Now, those with family on the island can visit as often and for as long as they wish. So-called “people-to-people” travel to Cuba has also opened up, allowing Americans without family connections the possibility of visiting the communist-ruled island as long as they’re engaged in “purposeful travel” rather than outright tourism.
“The president, the secretary of state and myself obviously feel really strongly that people-to-people is the right thing to do — for U.S. citizens to be able to interact with Cuban citizens,” said Jacobson. “What we all want, including Sen. Rubio, is a free and democratic Cuba. It is not subversion and it is not regime change, but an effort to open Cuba to the world and try very hard to engage the people of Cuba, because our engagement with the government of Cuba is fairly unproductive.”
Rubio, along with Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, have been outspoken in their demands that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control — which issues licenses to Cuba travel providers — get tough with tour operators. Specifically, these lawmakers want OFAC to crack down on companies that fly Americans down to Cuba not to spread democracy or learn history but mainly to lounge on Varadero Beach, enjoy Havana’s spectacular nightlife, and spend dollars in the island’s state-controlled economy.
“There is no doubt there’s been some abuse of that opening,” Jacobson said. “OFAC has sanctioned organizations and will continue to sanction them if they are [found to be] promoting straight tourism to Cuba. I know Sens. Rubio and Menendez get upset about that, and we do too. We make a very clear distinction between purposeful travel and tourism.”
She added: “I think the engagement of U.S. faith-based organizations, academic institutions, cultural institutions and art exchanges has been extraordinarily useful and successful. It’s opened the eyes of Cubans to Americans and vice versa. I will continue to defend those regulatory changes that have made possible increased travel by Americans to Cuba.”
Mindful of Florida’s 29 electoral votes and its perennial (some say outsize) importance in national elections, few presidential candidates dare to advocate lifting the U.S. embargo altogether while campaigning in the Sunshine State.
This time around, however, there’s another factor making the tropical atmosphere especially poisonous: Alan Gross.
In December 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor was arrested for bringing satellite phones and other telecom equipment to Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.”
Gross claimed he was only trying to connect Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet as part of a democracy-building program, but the Castro regime said his actions were aimed at destabilizing the regime. International appeals for his release — including one by visiting Pope Benedict XVI — have fallen on deaf ears, infuriating the Obama administration.
“The case of Alan Gross does bring home in a very real and concrete way some of the things that make Cuba an issue. The Cubans have shown no willingness to do the right thing and release him on humanitarian grounds,” said Jacobson. “That makes everything else about the complicated U.S.-Cuba relationship even harder. The jailing and conviction of Mr. Gross for 15 years is a ridiculously excessive sentence that underscores to people how little Cuba has changed.”
In mid-September, a senior Cuban diplomat said the government was ready “to find a solution” to Gross’s case, but a State Department spokeswoman dismissed the negotiation offer, telling the Associated Press that, “We have not seen a willingness by the Cuban government to discuss seriously a resolution to this issue.”
Jacobson berated the Castro regime for being “cynical enough to think they could get something for Alan Gross.” Havana has reportedly raised the issue of five Cuban agents sentenced to lengthy jail terms in the United States, though it hasn’t explicitly said it is seeking an exchange.
In January 2011, Jacobson became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Gross in prison; the jailhouse visit was hastily arranged just as Jacobson was about to meet 25 to 30 anti-Castro dissidents. She suspects the timing was not a coincidence.
Jacobson noted that both she and Gross — who’s lost nearly 100 pounds in prison and is reportedly in poor health (which the Cuban government denies) — are residents of Potomac, Md., and attend the same synagogue.
“We have lots of people in common, which made for a very personal conversation, close to two hours,” she recalled. “He has a daughter with breast cancer and a mother with lung cancer who just turned 90. The United States allowed René González [a Cuban national convicted of spying in the U.S. on behalf of the Castro regime] compassionate leave to go to Cuba to see his dying brother, and yet the Cubans will not permit Alan to come here. It’s just outrageous.”
She added: “In our conversations with colleagues around the hemisphere about Mr. Gross, I do think all these countries agree that the sentence is excessive and that he should be allowed to come home as a humanitarian gesture, even if on the broader areas we don’t have the same policy.”
In the meantime, Jacobson said the detention of Gross “has clearly stimulated a review” of USAID’s pro-democracy programs in Cuba.
“For years, the United States has had programs in places that were difficult and dangerous. We have a commitment to continue helping democracy activists, working with incipient civil society, but we’ll do that in a way that reduces as much as possible the dangers to people working there,” she said. “Some of the guidelines are different than they were before. We want to make sure people remain safe while having an impact.”
Despite the lack of a political opening under President Raúl Castro since he took over the leadership of Cuba from his older brother Fidel four years ago, the regime has unveiled several dramatic economic reforms. These include the birth of a private real estate market, the dismantling of money-losing state companies, and the rise of small self-employment ventures known as cuentapropismo. Even the government predicts that by 2015, the nascent private sector could account for up to 40 percent of Cuba’s GDP, compared to less than 5 percent today.
“We’re watching these changes very closely,” said Jacobson. “We’re as riveted to the possibility of change in Cuba as everybody else. As we watch these things, the possibility for economic opening and freedom is critically important to Cubans.
“The problem we have is that they’re halfway measures,” she argues. “Change is possible and the United States will encourage, reward and respond to change. The way we responded to change in Burma is very instructive, I think. We are not absolutists in the sense that we’re going to sit with our arms folded until everything is done.”
Region-wide, Jacobson said the Obama administration remains focused on the same four goals as when it came into office: improving citizen security, strengthening democracy, expanding economic opportunity, and reducing social inequality.
“The fundamental goal that runs throughout all of those goals is partnership,” she told The Diplomat. “As the president said in Cartagena, there’s really no such thing as junior and senior partnerships. What’s new about that is the capacity of our partner countries to act domestically, in the region and globally. Our partnerships include Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Colombia and Chile — countries with strong democratic institutions and the capacity to really bring something to the table that the United States can’t.”
Some of the biggest international meetings in the last year, she noted, took place in Latin America, even though they weren’t specific to Latin America.
Jacobson also cited a “rare moment of bipartisanship” in the recent passage of U.S. free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.
“Even the opponents of free trade recognize that not having the agreements does not improve the labor or environmental situation,” she said. “Sometimes, people have irrational exuberance about what FTAs can really achieve. They’re not the entire answer on labor and environment, just as they’re not the entire answer in growing trade and exports. They’re critically important and they help enormously, but you must also have solid domestic legislation, enforcement and sanctions if people don’t abide by the rules.”
The next logical step, said Jacobson, is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which seeks to eliminate trade barriers across the entire Pacific region. In addition to the United States, the TPP’s original members include Chile and Peru, and now Mexico and Canada have been invited to join. In addition, Panama and Colombia are interested in becoming part of the TPP as soon as possible, while Costa Rica may sign up as well.
“[If] you look at U.S. Latin America policy since Bush 41, there’s been a lot of bipartisanship on this hemisphere. When I go up [to Congress] and brief them over the last four years on the Mérida Initiative and CARSI [Central America Regional Security Initiative], I do not get partisan pushback.”
Another priority for Jacobson is expanding academic opportunities throughout the hemisphere. She noted that Latin American universities rarely make it to the list of the world’s top 100 educational institutions.
“Unless these countries invest in their educational systems, this growth of the middle class won’t be sustained,” warned Jacobson — which is one reason she’s pushing for academic exchanges that will some day allow 100,000 young Americans to study in the region, and 100,000 Latin Americans to study in the United States. (Currently, the numbers are roughly 40,000 and 60,000, respectively).
For now, says Jacobson, “I’m grateful to the Senate every day for confirming me, but I’m a late arrival in the Obama administration, so I do feel a certain amount of urgency. I’m hoping for a second term for this president. I want to deliver on what we promised.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.