The White House said Monday that President Barack Obama will nominate Roberta S. Jacobson, the chief U.S. negotiator in talks to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, to be the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
If confirmed, Jacobson, currently the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, would become the first woman to hold the high-profile post.
Obama’s previous nominee for the Mexico post, Maria Echaveste, withdrew her name from consideration in January, citing the prolonged Senate confirmation process. Echaveste, the daughter of Mexican migrants, had been nominated in September.
Jacobson, who in her current job oversees some 10,000 personnel in 30 countries, played a critical role in overseeing the first steps toward normalization between the U.S. and Cuba.
She 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 the “horse trader of the Americas.”
She was heavily 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. 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.”
Jacobson also worked on the Merida Initiative, a U.S.-Mexican partnership to fight organized crime. She not only delivered “a tremendous work of diplomacy with the Mexicans,” Tom Shannon, a State Department counselor said, but also handled the financial and programming logistics and kept Congress in the loop.
Mexico is the home of one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions in the world, posing serious management demands. Twenty percent of all arrests of Americans abroad occur in the U.S. consular district in Tijuana, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General has noted, while the Juarez consular office processes more immigrant visas than any other U.S. post in the world.
Diplomatically, the job requires mastery of policies, including immigration reform and its harder-edged cousin, border control, as well as the struggle over drug trafficking. Two-way trade in goods and services between the countries surpasses half a trillion dollars a year.
Jacobson served as deputy assistant secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA issues from 2007 to 2010 and as director of the Office of Mexican Affairs from 2003 to 2007.
She was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, from 2000 to 2002. She began her career at the Department of State as a presidential management intern.
Jacobson has led all the negotiating sessions with Cuba since the December announcement of the plan to restore diplomatic relations. Last week, the State Department announced that Cuba had been removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, lifting a key sticking point in efforts to re-establish embassies in the two countries.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday that there remain “some issues that need to be worked out” before embassies are opened.
“We don’t have a timetable for the next round of meetings yet,” Harf said.