Disclaimer: Ambassador Roberta Jacobson’s son is a news and copy editor at The Tufts Daily. He was not involved in the production of this article in any way.
Roberta Jacobson is the current U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and the former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. A graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Jacobson led a U.S. delegation in talks with the Cuban government to renew diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States earlier this year. She spoke at The Fletcher School’s convocation ceremony on Sept. 9 about her experiences as a student at Fletcher, touting the student body’s diversity and its extensive ties to Mexican diplomacy. Jacobson also touched on the shared diplomatic interests of the United States and Mexico and the importance of maintaining positive U.S.-Mexico relations. Finally, she urged Fletcher graduates to take advantage of the connections and opportunities that come with having graduated from Fletcher. The Daily spoke with Jacobson about her talk, her professional goals and her time at Fletcher.
Tufts Daily (TD): What were some highlights of your time at Fletcher?
Roberta Jacobson (RJ): Well, there was a professor working at Fletcher, an Australian human rights expert named Philip Alston … who was completing a book on the [United Nations’] (UN) human rights organizations … I had worked on a committee on the elimination of discrimination against women when I was at the UN. He asked me to write the chapter [of his book] on that entity. So when he published the book, I had a chapter in a university press book, and that was an opportunity with a Fletcher professor that I was lucky to have. I took that book with me everywhere to show people. It was one of my first published works.
The other thing that stood out for me was looking at liberation theology as a revolutionary ideology in Latin America for my thesis. I was taking a security studies course at Fletcher, which was [taught by] a very conservative group of people. When I worked on this, [my professor and others in that department] believed that liberation theology was manipulated directly [by the Soviet Union]. But as I worked on the paper, I came to the conclusion that … [liberation theology] was indigenous, homegrown and grew out of a lot of inequality. I basically proved the opposite of what was forecast and thought … I felt perfectly comfortable challenging what we both might have believed in the beginning. That’s a very valuable experience. It speaks to the feeling of academic independence at Fletcher.
TD: The majority of your career in the State Department has focused on U.S.-Latin American relations. What made you want to work in that area?
RJ: When I knew I wanted to do political science and international affairs and had to pick a region, there was a lot happening at that time in Latin American political science. From ’78 to ’82, it was the start of the return to democracy from military governments [in Latin America], and politicians and citizens were working to get the military out of politics. So I became fascinated by [the region], both because of the human rights angle but also because in so many respects, it was a political science laboratory … So the place just drew me for the political side and human rights aspects, but I also loved the culture of it.
TD: What qualities did you learn in college and at Fletcher that have helped you handle real-world diplomacy?
RJ: There was a diversity of [view], culture, ethnicity, background and nationality that I think is really important. Also, when I came to Fletcher, I had been working for two years [at the UN], so I treated Fletcher like a job. I came to school in the morning, I did my work and I went home. That got me in a good routine for life. I didn’t really pull all-nighters because I had already transitioned to a working life.
TD: Are there some qualities that college didn’t teach you when it comes to handling real-world diplomacy?
RJ: Of course. One is listening. I think you can be taught to listen to some extent and you can learn it over time if you realize the value of it. Fletcher and Tufts try to teach it because they emphasize the value of hearing from everybody and hearing all those voices, that diversity of opinions.
You also need to know how to delegate and work on a team. Schools like Tufts and Fletcher teach that, but I think it comes even earlier. I’m always surprised by how soon schools put children in groups to work on solving problems. There’s very little that the State Department does on its own. We work with other agencies every day, whether it’s the [Department of Defense] or the Department of Justice. So much of foreign affairs involves agencies that were formerly considered domestic agencies, and you better learn to work with those people … And that takes a lot of patience, too.
TD: What prompted the negotiations with Cuba after so many years?
RJ: I think there were a couple of things. Short term, [President Obama] and I had been looking at the situation of Alan Gross, who was an American imprisoned in Cuba. He had been a subcontractor for an American program bringing in satellite and Internet equipment to the Jewish community [in Cuba]. He wasn’t doing well, and we wanted to bring him home. That was a short-term goal. But the President knew that if we did something to try to bring him home, the small group of dissenting Cuban-Americans in Congress would disagree no matter what we did, big or small. So his [idea] was, if we’re going to do something, we should do something big.
The reason he thought we should do something big was twofold: He was in his second term, which is a time when presidents have traditionally made bolder decisions, and second, he felt that he could increasingly see the way our Cuba policy wasn’t isolating Cuba but was isolating us. Over the years, we were the only country maintaining an embargo … and we know that embargoes don’t work if only one country imposes it. So every time I traveled to Latin America or talked to our allies in Latin America, they complained about our Cuba policy … [W]e realized our Cuba policy had become an irritant in our Latin-American relations.
Also, Cuban-Americans have changed. They used to be solidly Republican and supported the embargo, but it’s not the same [anymore]. The President won the Cuban-American vote in 2012, and many of them supported the idea of engaging with Cuba. So you put that all together and realize it’s way past time.
TD: What is it like being a woman in government, especially in diplomacy?
RJ: It’s very interesting because I’ve been the first woman in my previous two positions. I’m the first woman Ambassador to Mexico, and I was the first woman Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, which is kind of shocking because I’ve had three woman Secretaries of State whom I’ve worked for. Most of the time, honestly, it’s fine … I’ve worked with many women in [Latin America], including presidents. These are countries that have had female presidents before we have. I’ve also worked with many female foreign ministers, including the woman who is foreign minister in Mexico. Despite working with so many women, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a barrier, and I spend a lot of time working on promoting education for girls, particularly in STEM fields, as well as women’s entrepreneurship and other issues. But personally, I haven’t felt like I’ve been taken less seriously.
TD: What has been the biggest challenge in your career or working in the international field?
RJ: Work-life balance … The State Department has a culture of, “The longer you work, the better you are and the higher you’ll rise” … So if a 40-hour work week is what you’re paid for and you work less than 60, then you must be less committed. [The State Department] has an old-school culture, and I have found that difficult.
TD: What has your experience as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico been like so far?
RJ: Well, it took 10 months for me to be confirmed because of my work with Cuba, which I never regretted for a minute. But during that period of time, logically, you build up your expectations of a job. And I worried that I had built it up unrealistically, but the truth is, being an ambassador is as great as I imagined it to be. Being in Mexico is every bit as good as I hoped it would be; it’s a fabulous, fascinating country, which I knew from visits, but it’s different when you’re there as ambassador. It’s difficult to be out in public all the time because you’re recognized and people talk to you. But I love it.
Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.