WASHINGTON (AP) – Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America and point person in detente talks with Cuba, was nominated Monday by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
If confirmed by the Senate, Jacobson would be the first woman to hold what is considered one of the most U.S. important diplomatic posts due to the countries' proximity and key relationship.
Obama's previous nominee, Maria Echaveste, withdrew from consideration in late January, citing a prolonged nomination process and the interests of her family. She had not received a confirmation hearing in the Senate in the five months since her name was put forward.
Mexico's government welcomed Jacobson's nomination. "She knows this country very well, which is something that pleases us greatly," Foreign Relations Secretary Jose Antonio Meade said.
Jacobson is a career diplomat who previously served as deputy chief of mission in Peru, director of the State Department's Office of Mexican Affairs and deputy assistant secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA issues.
Since 2012, she has been assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
In that role she has been prominent in leading U.S. negotiators in talks with Cuba on re-establishing diplomatic ties and embassies after more than five decades of antagonism.
Those talks continue, but John Caulfield, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 2011 until his retirement from the State Department in 2014, predicted they would not be hurt by Monday's announcement.
Caulfield noted Jacobson's deputy at the State Department, Alex Lee, and the current chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, are also involved in the talks and would provide continuity in what officials on both sides frequently characterize as a process of building trust. The discussions could also be over by the time Jacobson is confirmed.
"It takes a long time to get through the Senate, so I'm not sure that she's packing her bags yet. ... I would hope that most of the issues are resolved long before she would be departing," Caulfield said.
It's not clear whether Jacobson's role in the Cuba talks could complicate approval in the Senate. The Foreign Relations Committee, which holds confirmation hearings, includes Cuban-American Sens. Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat, both outspoken opponents of normalizing relations with Cuba. Others on the committee, however, such as Republican Jeff Flake support engagement with the Communist-run country.
"Senator Rubio considers our relationship with Mexico to be one of our most important. He is familiar with Ms. Jacobson's government service, and that record is something he will be closely reviewing," Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon said via email.
Officials have said the White House bypassed the State Department during long and secret back-channel talks with the Cubans that led to the joint announcement on Dec. 17 that Washington and Havana would formally seek detente.
"They didn't even inform Roberta Jacobson about this. So I think it would be unfair to sort of tag her for the change in policy in Cuba. I think this is purely a White House operation," Caulfield said. "Nevertheless what's fair isn't always what rules in Washington, so you just don't know."
Jacobson would replace Anthony Wayne, the U.S. envoy to Mexico since 2011. Wayne's predecessor, Carlos Pascual, resigned amid a diplomatic flap after leaked diplomatic cables showed him criticizing the anti-drug strategy of then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón.