The leader of the U.S. delegation to this week’s talks on normalizing relations with Cuba has a reputation for determination and expertise at the State Department, where she flouted custom with an unlikely rise from rank-and-file civil servant to a role that’s been described as “horse trader of the Americas.”
Diplomats and Latin America specialists describe Roberta Jacobson as a hard-charging stateswoman who tempers a steely professionalism with humor and warmth. As the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, she oversees 10,000 personnel in 30 countries, is the first woman to hold the job and was the State Department’s first regional deputy assistant secretary to have risen to that rank without first being a foreign service officer.
Across the board, diplomats described her ascent to assistant secretary from the civil service, not the more specialized foreign service, as “exceedingly rare” and “practically unheard-of.”
Her tough yet sunny disposition, they say, has served her well in other regional talks on thorny topics such as trade agreements, human rights and security partnerships. But Cuba is a minefield, and Jacobson will be taking the United States’ first, ginger steps toward normalization after a freeze of more than 50 years.
Jacobson and her team will arrive in Havana on Wednesday for several days of talks with Cuban counterparts, the first since President Obama announced Dec. 17 that the two countries would restore diplomatic relations, which were cut in 1961. The meetings were scheduled long before the policy shift was announced; for years lower-level U.S. and Cuban officials have met to discuss a migration accord. But dispatching someone as high-ranking as Jacobson – the first assistant secretary to visit in recent memory – is a sign of the Obama administration’s seriousness about changing course on Cuba.
The “Cuban thaw” is a result of back-channel negotiations by the White House that were so closely held that even Jacobson wasn’t privy to the details in the beginning, ostensibly to shield her from congressional questioning had the secret dealings been leaked, according to officials with knowledge of the process. She later received briefings on the progress, but she wasn’t part of the negotiations.
Jacobson was, however, intimately involved in the case of Alan Gross, an American the Cubans had held for five years on accusations of spying and then released Dec. 17 in a prisoner swap that was key to Obama’s decision to re-establish relations. One friend recalled Jacobson’s anguish after she had visited Gross in prison, and Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned Gross in a statement he issued in response to a request for comment on Jacobson.
“She gets a lot done out of the limelight,” Kerry said. “I think about the big hug Alan Gross gave her. This was someone who knew Roberta fought for him and delivered for him. She gets the personal piece of diplomacy instinctively. She'll be absolutely central in these talks with the Cubans as we set the stage for the next phase in our relationship and for big opportunities in the hemisphere.”
The freeing of Gross and, later, 53 political prisoners whose release the United States had sought, has done nothing to mute the protests in Congress from members who see the normalization of relations as providing a tyrannical, untrustworthy regime with the opportunity to consolidate power and repress opposition.
A taste of what’s likely to lie ahead was in evidence at Jacobson’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November 2011. There, some of Congress’ most outspoken Cuba critics, including Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., complained that more relaxed U.S. policies toward Cuba had resulted in trips featuring salsa dancing, cigar factory tours and baseball games at a time when the Castro government had increased its targeting of political activists. How, they demanded, did softening the U.S. stance on Cuba make any sense?
“Senator,” Jacobson replied to Menendez, “our goal in changing the regulations was to and is to expand the ability of average Cubans to have contact with Americans, not through their government – to have people-to-people contact. In doing so, we certainly recognize that there may be economic benefits to the regime, but we believe that they will be outweighed by the benefits to individual Cubans of having that greater access to information and to Americans.”
She maintained that position last month at a news briefing where she was asked about some lawmakers’ vows to block funding for a U.S. Embassy in Havana. “U.S. Embassies are not a gift to countries,” she said. Among consular and other functions, an embassy also can keep close watch on regimes accused of human rights crackdowns, she said.