Flick a switch and the lamp comes on.
We hardly think about it. But electricity does much more than power a light bulb. Using electricity, we transport vaccines without worrying whether there will be a working refrigerator when they arrive. Electricity means running essential machines in hospitals, allowing public school students to see their books, and providing the energy a business needs to create jobs and prosper.
But for 31 million people in the Americas, access to electricity is expensive and unreliable. Sometimes it’s not available at all. So last spring, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton teamed up with officials in Colombia to launch an initiative they called Connect 2022. It aims to ensure that everyone in the Western Hemisphere has access to electricity within the next decade. The buzzword here is “interconnection,” the linking of different countries’ power grids so that excess electricity in one place can move seamlessly to somewhere that needs it. Winter in Argentina, for example, is summer in Mexico, and the point-counterpoint of the countries’ energy needs is an opportunity to prevent waste and increase efficiency.
All of which sounds great in theory. But getting countries to work together on such an arrangement is politically treacherous and diplomatically complicated. Convincing everyone involved that a deal like this would be in everyone’s best interests requires a leader who can think quickly, persuade forcefully, and deftly navigate the politics on the ground. 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 says. “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. Tip O’Neill was right on the international stage, too: all politics is local. We’re the ones who have the understanding of each country situation sufficient to try and make those deals.”
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. Beyond her 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 words. On a recent Tuesday, for example, the Panamanian ambassador to the United States came to visit her office. 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. Jacobson listened respectfully as each reviewed the top news of the last week. She 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. She’s not someone who parachuted from the outside to become the most senior official in WHA. She’s really worked her way up. She knows every level of this bureau intimately. She remembers what it’s like to be a desk officer and a deputy director.”
At the DAS meeting, her staff is discussing a thorny political issue involving a hold on some monies from the Global Fund. “Can we have holds die like nominations in Congress?” Jacobson jokes. “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. She recognizes that civil servants must, to a certain extent, put aside their own personal politics to do their job well. Jacobson’s old friend Victoria Nuland ’83 knows this well. “We come in to be a career service officer who will support and help whomever the American people elect,” says Nuland, a foreign service officer who was the state department’s spokeswoman under Hillary Clinton. Nuland has worked closely with both Dick Cheney and Clinton. “And if you’re not excited about bringing out the best in both teams, you’re in the wrong business.”
Still, enthusiasm for the President’s policies helps. For Jacobson, 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 says. 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. But the experience illustrates the extent to which “I got lucky,” she says: “By the time I was in line to be considered for this, it was President Obama, someone with whom I agreed very strongly and have enormous enthusiasm for.”
Civil service was not Jacobson’s first career choice. She grew up in suburban New Jersey dreaming of becoming a dancer. She chose Brown because of its dance, theater, and political science departments. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she says, “and I really wanted a place where I could continue to dance. But also, my parents wanted someplace where I could, you know, learn to get a real job.” 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 says. “I just wasn’t good enough.”
Meanwhile, she was falling in love with Latin America. When Jacobson 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 recalls. “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. She 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.” When she got her 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.
Jacobson also credits the “strong culture of public service” in her family for her career choice. 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. She 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 family. She says 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 cautions. “We see this in the United States, where we are constantly struggling to perfect our democracy. The extraordinary work done in Latin America by democratic activists and leaders advanced the region enormously, but it cannot be taken for granted or assumed to be permanent.”
Among the latest threats to democracy in her region, she says, is the reemergence in countries like Venezuela of personalismo, a cult of personality that subsumes dissent and snubs the balance of power. At a breakfast talk she gave recently to the think tank and policy organization Americas Society/Council of the Americas, she warned that “In some countries, populist leaders who are impatient with the institutional processes of democracy are closing down or subjugating independent media, courts, or other essential components of democracy.”
Jacobson 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. “No country in the hemisphere—including the United States—can compete globally in the twenty-first century without engaging, training, and advancing all members of its society—all its women, all its cultures, and ensuring that they have the skills and opportunities to contribute to modernizing the economies and political system.”
This is why, of all the broad mandates that Jacobson’s office has received from the White House, education is to her the most precious and the most exciting to implement. In March 2011, during Obama’s first trip as President to Latin America, he announced that “the United States will work with partners in this region, including the private sector, to increase the number of U.S. students studying in Latin America to 100,000, and the number of Latin American students studying in the United States to 100,000.”
This was a bold mandate. About 60,000 students from Latin America study in the United States each year, while about 40,000 students study in Latin America. Obama was proposing doubling those numbers. Jacobson 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 and her 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 says. 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 says. “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. And “middle class citizens demand more of their governments,” she says, “more accountability, transparency, services. And they hope for, and expect more, for their children. As they should. Just as we do.” That’s why education, not to mention electricity, creates an upward spiral that ultimately leads to better government and stronger democracies.
“The more I travel throughout this hemisphere,” Jacobson says, “the more I realize how much we have in common—our values, our history, our languages, our aspirations. And therefore how much we can do together.”
Beth Schwartzapfel is a BAM contributing editor.