By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
As our geographic neighbor and third largest trading partner, the country of Mexico holds special significance in U.S. history, culture, and economy. As such, it is important for the U.S. government to place an ambassador in Mexico City who has a firm understanding of these issues, as well as a delicate touch when navigating cultural differences and diplomatic difficulties. Yet Mexico has been without a U.S. ambassador since late July 2015, and the current nominee’s final confirmation has not yet been approved by the full Senate.
The holdup over nominee Roberta S. Jacobson’s confirmation has nothing to do with her qualifications. She started her career as a civil servant, working as a desk officer at the State Department. Working her way up the ladder over the years, she now works as the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. She is fluent in Spanish and formerly served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Canada, Mexico and North American Free Trade Agreement issues. Jacobson also led the Office of Mexican Affairs.
The real sticking point for some senators on Capitol Hill is actually Jacobson’s recent work regarding the normalization of ties between the U.S. and Cuba—a highly controversial affair that has rubbed many Republicans who support the embargo and are vehemently anti-Castro the wrong way. Marco Rubio, a Florida senator considered a top-tier 2016 candidate, and Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is facing federal corruption charges, are Jacobson’s primary opponents. According to Politico.com, both senators, who are of Cuban descent, have actively opposed Obama’s decision to restore ties to the communist-led island, a decision that took effect July 20. Homing in on Jacobson’s nomination for the Mexico position is one way to needle the White House.
Menendez denied his reservations about Jacobson were solely related to her assistance with Obama’s Cuba policy, and said he has issues with the stance she would represent towards Latin America in general. However, this isn’t the first time Rubio and Menendez have stepped in the path of State Department personnel because of Cuba. Per Politico.com, Rubio temporarily blocked Jacobson’s 2011 nomination to her current post, in part over Cuba. Back in 2009, Menendez reportedly opposed the ultimately successful nomination of Carlos Pascual for the Mexico job; Pascual had helped write a paper arguing for normalizing ties with Cuba.
Although President Obama announced Jacobson’s nomination for the Mexico ambassador post on June 1, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn’t approve her nomination until November 10 by a vote of 12-7. However, Jacobson can’t assume the post in Mexico City until she receives approval from the full Senate. That vote could be delayed indefinitely unless Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, deems it a priority.
Relations between the U.S. and Mexico are currently at their most complex, with plenty of strained moments sprinkled in. The rhetoric over immigration reform going into the 2016 U.S. elections is at an all-time high, illegal drugs manufactured and smuggled by violent cartels continue to pour over the southwest border, and facilitating a billion dollars worth of daily cross-border trade becomes more challenging every year. The importance of having a qualified U.S. ambassador sitting at the post in Mexico City cannot be underestimated. However, neither can the sting of history between the U.S. and Cuba, and the effects of the island’s communist policies in the halls of Washington, DC.