University News

Assistant secretary of state talks Latin America

Roberta Jacobson ’82 offers international perspective on U.S. election, politics

staff writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Roberta Jacobson ’82 delivered a speech Monday about anti-corruption in the Western hemisphere for the 91st Stephen Odgen, Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs. The lecture, entitled “Why People are Mad and Why It’s a Good Thing,” focused on civilian responses to government corruption in Latin American countries.

Jacobson currently serves as assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, and is responsible for maintaining diplomatic relations between the United States and countries ranging from “Canada to Argentina.”

A self-described career civil servant, she has worked for the State Department for 30 years. “I didn’t plan on working for the government for this long,” Jacobson told The Herald. “I just kept getting interesting jobs.”

That trend has continued, as President Barack Obama nominated her as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico June 2. Jacobson is currently awaiting confirmation from Congress to assume the position.

President Christina Paxson P’19 introduced the lecture, citing highlights of Jacobson’s career and her experience as a Brown student. Jacobson created her own concentration in Latin American studies, she said, because she was inspired by the “wave of democratic transitions in Latin America” that coincided with her time at Brown in the early 1980s.

Jacobson mentioned that she was surprised and honored by the invitation to speak, as the list of former Ogden speakers includes heads of state. Nevertheless, she proceeded to discuss how the United States can and cannot help with the state of affairs in Latin America.

An emerging feature of contemporary Latin American politics is the resistance to corruption by ordinary citizens, Jacobson said. “Big scandals are nothing new in Latin America; what has changed is that people are no longer willing to tolerate them,” she said.

As citizens are realizing that they have the right to take action, the United States is presented with both an opportunity and a risk. “The U.S. government has the opportunity to be on the right side of this issue — the side of the people and the side of change,” she said.

As assistant secretary, Jacobson is responsible for regional political and economic issues, management and personnel and regional security issues. She recently led the delegation that negotiated the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015.

When asked about the impact of the current presidential election on her position and on Latin American diplomacy, Jacobson said, “A lot of countries around the world and in Latin America have leaders who are very concerned about the U.S. campaigns and some of the candidates’ harsh and extreme views on immigration.”

Prior to a brief question-and-answer session with the audience, Jacobson spoke about finding a work-life balance. “I still use the phrase ‘working mother’ — not ‘working parent’ — because I believe it is more challenging for women,” she said. In an interview with The Herald, she elaborated on this sentiment and said, “I certainly do not want to dissuade young men from entering the State Department, but I especially encourage young women to take the Foreign Service exam and enter this field.”

“We need the best and most talented people to go into government,” she added.