A career civil servant, Jacobson
has focused on Latin America for twenty years.
And that's where U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson '82 comes in.
"Trying to connect Mexico and Central America and Colombia sounds really good," she
"Everybody signs on to it.
But now it's the state department's job to try and overcome, for example, a pretty serious political roadblock between Panama and Colombia in that process.
It comes down to Panama wanting to protect its own energy producers.
Connecting with Colombia would bring in cheaper energy putting pressure on Panamanian prices.
"We get that," Jacobson
says, "and we understand that it's politically difficult.
But it's not good for Panamanians if they end up paying more for their energy."
As assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, or WHA, Jacobson heads the state department's efforts in all of Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and Canada.
That means the White House and the secretary set out broad mandates, she
says, "and then we have to go do the hard slogging work of horse trading and local politics.
A career civil servant, Jacobson has focused on Latin America during the entire twenty years she has worked at the state department.
For two years she served as number two in the American embassy in Lima, Peru, and at various posts in Washington she has worked on issues affecting Mexico, Canada, and Cuba, including NAFTA, human rights, and civil-military relations.
own expertise are the thousands of people who work for her
, both in Washington and on the ground in thirty-four countries throughout the region.
Despite Jacobson's easy informal manner in conversation, it's clear her
mind is always considering the real-world causes and consequences of her
On a recent Tuesday, for example, the Panamanian ambassador to the United States came to visit her
Switching between English and Spanish, they spoke easily and casually, covering such subjects as cocaine trafficking, President Obama's
2013 trip to Mexico, student exchange opportunities between the two countries, and the Panama Canal.
Earlier in the day, Jacobson had held a meeting with her top deputies in Washington. (The five deputy assistant secretaries, or DASs-in the state department it's pronounced "dasses"-each oversees a particular region in the hemisphere, and each has a staff with specialists in various geographic regions or policy areas.
listened respectfully as each reviewed the top news of the last week.
asked questions and shared plans about the upcoming weeks.
The atmosphere was relaxed and supportive, with the staff laughing and joking, examining political angles, and setting goals.
"Roberta is someone who wants to make people around her comfortable and feel like they're appreciated," says her senior adviser Daniel Erikson '96.
"I like that."
The joke is apt.
When, in September 2011, President Obama first nominated Jacobson to lead WHA (she had been serving as the acting assistant secretary and before that as a DAS), Florida senator Marco Rubio threatened to block her nomination-which a senator can do by putting a "hold" on it-unless the Obama administration took more of a hard line against Cuba.
Of course, Jacobson
knows the politics of Washington and how little they sometimes relate to actual qualifications of appointees.
recognizes that civil servants must, to a certain extent, put aside their own personal politics to do their job well.
, at least, making and implementing directives that affect all of Latin America requires her
to embrace those policies with an enthusiasm she
would not have had for some of Obama's predecessors.
"When you're at a lower level you can carve out plenty of places for yourself where you don't have any problem with the policy, even if it's not your political party of choice," she
Jacobson, a Democrat, began working for the state department under President Reagan, she says: "I worked as a desk officer in South America-not an area where I disagreed with Reagan.
I would have had a much harder time working in Central America.
Senator Rubio eventually relented, and Jacobson was sworn in in March 2012.
At Brown, Jacobson danced and was stage manager for many theater productions.
"It was pretty obvious to me pretty quick that I wasn't going to make a career out of dance," she
"I just wasn't good enough."
was falling in love with Latin America.
entered Brown in the late 1970s, almost all Latin American countries were dictatorships.
"They were beginning, as of '80, '81, '82, and beyond, to move back to democracy," she
"So as a laboratory for political science, it was fascinating.
What really got me interested in the region was the political experimentation that was going on at the time, and the wave of democracies which preceded the Soviet Bloc and the Arab Awakening."
Working closely with her
mentor, Professor of Anthropology Dwight Heath, Jacobson
wrote a senior thesis about pre-Colombian grave robbing: archaeological finds from the Americas that had been stolen.
drew primarily on the Peabody collections at Harvard
and Machu Picchu objects at Yale
"One of the first treaties on the return of cultural patrimony was signed with Peru around 1980," she
says, "so Latin American countries were becoming bolder in trying to get back from developed countries what was theirs. [They were becoming] more confident in the international community, valuing more their own history.
first job after Brown as an editorial assistant at the United Nations, she
arranged for herself and Heath to present their work together as part of a meeting on the subject.
also credits the "strong culture of public service" in her
family for her
father, an electrical engineer, was chairman of the local zoning board, and her
mother, a teacher and social worker, was head of the school board.
All these influences came together when Jacobson
applied to graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts
enrolled as part of the Presidential Management Fellow program, which provides a direct route into government work.
Jacobson's career has not always been easy on her
two sons, who are now teenagers, learned early on to be the kids who sign up to bring plastic silverware-and not home-cooked food-to school parties.
"Oh!" one of her
sons exclaimed when the family went to dinner at a friend's house.
"Moms cook, too?"
Yet in the years since graduate school Jacobson says she
has had the rare opportunity to watch what she
calls a "laboratory of democracy" unfold in Latin America.
Working in a position that has helped those democracies has not only been a privilege, Jacobson says, but a window into our own democracy.
"Never assume the work of building democracy is done," she
believes that increasing student exchanges between the United States and Latin American countries is one of the best ways to help modernize the hemisphere's political and economic systems.
says the circumstances that leave a country vulnerable to personalismo are in some ways a direct result of the unfinished work that began in the 1980s.
These democratic movements, she
says, "weren't complete-they left out a lot of people and left governments frankly only partially democratic.
Millions of vulnerable populations-rural, indigenous, Afro-descendants, women, LGBT, for example-were never really brought into the political or economic system as full participants."
This less-than-inclusive political system, she
warns, makes civil society weaker and threatens a vibrant and free press, which can make their governments less transparent and democratic.
This is also true, she
adds, here at home
is the government offiical entrusted with making that happen, with figuring out, she
says, "how to make the President's rhetoric real."
To do that, she
team have teamed up with Partners of the Americas and NAFSA: the Association of International Educators
to "go out and find new university pairings, expand on existing university pairings, make community college connections," she
The collaboration has created a new nonprofit organization, Alianza
, which will provide challenge grants to universities that promote and support study-abroad programs.
"We never intended this to be government funded, nor for the private sector to give the money to government," Jacobson
"So we now actually have a vehicle, if I go to Walmart
or Bill Gates or anybody else, and say, 'We'd like a million dollars for more education.'"
During the past decade, Jacobson
is fond of pointing out, more than 50 million people in the Western Hemisphere
joined the middle class.