In a rare and exclusive interview, Roberta Jacobson, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico – controversial because of her pivotal role in the restoration of U.S.-Cuba relations – spoke of her personal love for Latin America, how it developed, and how the region is at a critical juncture as its citizens have less tolerance than ever for corruption and mismanagement.
Jacobson’s interview with Fox News Latino came as a Senate vote on her nomination is said to be close to taking place, according to multiple sources.
Fox News Latino has learned that Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who reportedly has been holding up a vote on Jacobson, was opening to appeals by some of his Senate colleagues to end the impasse in filling the ambassadorship to one of the United States’ key allies and biggest trade partners.
Jacobson, currently serving as U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was nominated last July and received approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November. The position has been vacant since nearly a year ago – the longest the U.S. has gone without an ambassador in Mexico City.
If confirmed, Jacobson would be the first woman to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
“Roberta Jacobson was nominated by the president and had bipartisan support,” Javier Palomarez, the CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has been pushing for her confirmation, told FNL. “The relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is crucial. Ninety-eight percent of all American companies that export to Mexico are actually small businesses. That gets to the heart of my constituency.”
Sources close to the process told Fox News Latino on condition of anonymity that in exchange for allowing the vote on Jacobson, Rubio – known as a foreign policy hawk – was pressing for provisions that would extend the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela that freezes property and assets in this country held by several Venezuelan officials, including people in the military and intelligence service, and denies them visas to come here, among other things.
The targets of the sanctions were accused of violating human rights, corruption, and using violence to suppress opponents of the government.
Those who have been pushing for Jacobson’s confirmation have accused Rubio, Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and presidential candidate, of preventing it from coming to a vote because of their opposition to the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations.
Menendez, who like Rubio is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently said he would not stand in the way of a vote, though he stressed he would not vote to confirm Jacobson.
Rubio, Menendez and Cruz, all of Cuban heritage, favor a hard line toward that communist nation, arguing that normalizing relations and easing trade and travel restrictions only serve to enrich the Castro regime and will not bring about democratic reforms. Those who support normalizing relations say that more than 50 years of no relations and an embargo have failed to spur change, and that it’s time to try a new approach.
Palomarez said he has personally appealed to those who oppose Jacobson's confirmation to get out of the way of the vote, even if they vote against it.
“This is not about politics, it’s about policy,” Palomarez said. “You cannot treat an important ally like Mexico in this fashion.”
Jacobson, a fluent Spanish-speaker who began at the State Department as an intern in 1986, did not discuss the stalemate over her confirmation, as she waited to address a crowd attending an event at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., Thursday. Instead, she spoke of the great potential Mexico has, and of how crucial a partner it is to the United States in a variety of ways.
“We’re working with small businesses,” she said of the U.S. government. “We’re linking up small businesses in the United States with small businesses in Mexico.”
Jacobson said there are numerous small business development centers focused on economic relationships between ventures in Los Angeles and Mexico.
“This is the kind of stuff that can change the dynamic in Central America,” she said.
Jacobson, 54, is a strong believer that growth and potential in communities, countries and regions can happen through strong education systems and entrepreneurship opportunities.
Much of her experience, as well as her college studies, has focused on Latin America – a region she grew fascinated by as a young adult. Jacobson has held top posts in Latin America, or in the United States in departments focused on Latin American countries. She knows Mexico well, though she says there’s still a lot of the country she hasn’t seen.
“I haven’t been a tourist,” she said, adding that her stays there have been all work.
Mexico, she says, offers great opportunities for Americans to study abroad, and more Mexicans could study here. She cites an initiative that started in 2011 called 100,000StrongintheAmericas, which called for 100,000 U.S. college students to study in Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada – and for an equal number of students from those places to come to the United States.
“Americans don’t think of Mexico as a place to go to for education,” Jacobson said, “but you can go a lot of [excellent] places there to study. We need to work together on this.”
She described her experience in 1985 studying abroad in Argentina as formative.
In a 2014 State Department blog post, Jacobson wrote, “Studying among the bustling cafés and lively museums where trials of military officers proceeded in a Buenos Aires emerging from a dark period of military rule, ignited a lifelong passion for history and politics and led me to dedicate myself to diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere.”
Jacobson believes that the key to lasting change in Latin America is to empower the people.
“We’re at a pivotal point in the hemisphere,” she said in her address to the crowd at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “People are demanding more from their governments.”
Exchanges between Americans and Latin Americans, particularly in education, “is really the way to ensure that people in the United States see citizens of Latin America as individuals, not as caricatures.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.