University News

Q&A with Roberta Jacobson ’82

Staff Writer
Friday, April 5, 2013

Herald: How do you think your Brown education prepared you for your work at the State Department?

Jacobson: It was quite useful. … I did political science, but I also designed — because at the time it didn’t exist — a Latin American studies major, drawing from language and political science and anthropology and sociology and things like that. And that desire to focus on the (Western) hemisphere and the ability to experiment at Brown — I just can’t overestimate that. … I hate to sound probably like everyone else who talks about Brown, but the reason you can do that experimentation is the New Curriculum. … It’s not like I was doing something incredibly radical, but still, there was encouragement for that kind of experimentation intellectually and academically that was thrilling to me.


Did you know when you came to Brown that you had a specific interest in Latin America or in working in government, or is that something that developed over the course of your time on campus?

No, it definitely developed while I was here. I came from parents who believed strongly in public service, so going into government always seemed like an option, but what I would do wasn’t clear. The focus on Latin America was almost accidental. I was working on political science. I knew I wanted international affairs, and I thought it would be good if I specialized in one part of the world, and I originally thought I wanted Asia. But I spoke a little Spanish already …  and so that combined, as I said, with the fact that politically what was happening in Latin America almost seemed like, you know, a poli sci lab for creations of democracy and democratic transitions.


Your focus has been Latin America and Western hemisphere affairs. Recently, Hugo Chavez died. How do you think that his death has affected or will affect the region — Venezuela, South America, the United States’ relationship with the region?

It’s still early days and hard to tell, because especially in this electoral climate in Venezuela, there is quite honestly still a hagiography and a nostalgia for Chavez that is almost all-consuming. … It will be interesting to see who replaces Chavez at the head of that sort of populist, leftist wing of countries, and I don’t know that anyone can.  … He had the ability to convince people of a national and regional project that I’m not sure any other leader has, especially with Fidel Castro essentially gone from the scene for the last few years. I don’t know how the relationship will change bilaterally. Obviously a lot depends on how the elections go in 10 days. … I reached out to Vice President Nicolas Maduro to see if we couldn’t restart a productive dialogue on some issues where I think we have some mutual desire to advance: counternarcotics, counterterrorism efforts, maybe areas like commercial relationships. And there was a real desire from the Venezuelan government to do that, but then Chavez took a turn for the worse. … So nothing’s going to happen until after these elections, and then obviously depending on who wins, we will see whether we can begin to have that better relationship. …

The Obama administration has made clear from the beginning, whether it’s Bolivia or Ecuador or Venezuela, we would like to have a positive relationship. And to varying degrees, each of those countries has said, “No, thank you. We don’t think that’s useful to us right now.” I think that’s too bad. … We’re not going to force ourselves on anybody. There are lots of countries in the hemisphere who want to continue to engage with us on a lot of different things, and we will hope for the day when we can improve the relationship with Venezuela.


You used to work specifically on Mexican affairs. Immigration reform has been a major topic of discussion in the U.S. recently. How do you think the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico will develop in terms of both immigration and the illicit drug trade?

I’ve worked on Mexico extensively now for 10 years or so. … The relationship is incredibly deep now, and the cooperation is becoming automatic … cooperation on everything from environment to security. But there are two domestic issues, which, if moved, will make a huge difference in our foreign policy. … One, obviously, is comprehensive immigration reform. If that gets passed, which I’m very optimistic about and I know the president is for this year, that’s going to be enormous, very positive. But the second is if we can do anything on gun control, which we have not been able to do or even really debate in years. And Mexico, like Central America and the Caribbean, has been very critical of the flow of illicit guns to their countries. …

Both (immigration reform and gun control) help us deal with the security problem of transnational criminal organizations. And I tend to call them that rather than just drug cartels … because … where they’ve been under heavy threat or they haven’t been able to traffic in certain areas of Mexico, they don’t just go away. They get into other criminal activities: extortion, kidnapping for ransom, trafficking in persons. So we shouldn’t kid ourselves that if we solve the narcotics issues, all these guys will become Boy Scouts. … If you’ve got a border that is not being crossed by thousands of people coming here for economic reasons, you can concentrate on the people who are moving contraband of any sort. And you can partner with Mexico on that, because the really heavy, emotional issue of illegal migration is removed … You’ve got a guest workers program, and you’ve got a legalization of the folks who are in the United States.

What do you think is the most pressing issue in the Western hemisphere right now and what might it be five years from now?

In terms of the most pressing issue now, it’s kind of two-fold. … One is incredibly strong growth in the Western hemisphere, especially South America, over the last 10 years … Fifty-six million people moved into the middle class over the last 15 years. How do you expand that to millions of people who still live in poverty? … How do you expand that and sustain it?

And there I think the key is education, where education is not keeping pace with the global economy. … That’s one of the huge challenges that we have now and will still have in five years … to get more young people educated, capable of really competing in today’s economy. And that, I think, has an impact on the second huge challenge, which is the issue of citizen security, which many people in the hemisphere put at the top of the things they are most worried about, even before the economy. … We talk about youth at risk. They’re at risk because they don’t see an alternative. They’re not educated to participate in the legal workforce … I don’t see that as going away.


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