Roberta Jacobson on a Sustainable Mexico

 /  Dec. 2, 2018, 4:53 p.m.

Roberta Jacobson at her IOP seminar "Elections Have Consequences," discussing the limits of elections and multilateralism in Venezuela.

Roberta Jacobson served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2011 to 2016. In 2016, president Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to Mexico, a position she served in until 2018. Prior to these endeavors, she the was the director of the State Department’s Office of Mexican Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico, and NAFTA issues. During the Autumn 2018 Quarter, the former ambassador served as a Pritzker Fellow at the Institute of Politics. She sat down with The Gate to discuss the events surrounding the migrant caravan, new trade policy with Mexico, and the economic ramifications of sustainable energy.

The Gate: I wanted to start off by asking about your resignation in May after thirty-one years of public service. Can you describe what led to that decision?

Roberta Jacobson: It was difficult. Ambassador to Mexico is the job I always wanted—and it’s probably the best job I’ll ever have—so it’s hard to give it up for a lot of different reasons. The other title of an ambassador, however, is personal representative of the president. That felt weird under this president. I had to decide: am I having enough influence internally in the government to make it worth my not liking the ultimate policies? I love the job but the cost of having to defend the decisions without having influence in their making became too much so I decided I wanted to leave. And after thirty-one years, that’s not necessarily a tragedy either.

Gate: Recently there has been a lot of coverage on the caravan of migrants. President Donald Trump has commented that it was planned by the Democratic Party and threatened to cut foreign aid over it. Has there ever been an event like this before? Have you ever seen a reaction like this?

RJ: There have been migrant caravans before—numerous ones in fact. There have been caravans every year, just never this large. They have never been exploited, however, for base political use the way the president is using this one.

Gate: Mexican president-elect Lopez Obrador has announced plans to expand Mexico’s green energy sector. However, the USMCA [United States Mexico Canada Agreement] negotiations still allow for and protect foreign investment in oil, and Obrador stated his intent to maintain a relationship with major oil companies. In what way can there be actual progress in renewable energy in Mexico?

RJ: I think—and I’m not an economist or an expert in this—but Mexico has enormous capacity for renewables. The main areas are wind, solar, and, to some extent biomass or thermal. Wind is an interesting case because there is significant infrastructure in Baja, California. Those projects, some that have been supported by the North American Development Bank, have already begun to produce energy that’s connected to the grid in California and has very real commercial possibility.

Second, and this is where I think Lopez Obrador should be interested, there’s huge wind potential in Oaxaca and the isthmus of Tehuantepec. You have a significant amount of wind generation now, but you could have a lot more. The critical issue there has been making sure that you do good consulta previa, which is the consultation with the communities. Because these are largely agricultural, some indigenous communities, you want to make sure you have people on board. But if LO is serious about developing the south and increasing the prosperity for people in places like Oaxaca, the possibility for renewable energy in that area is quite possible.

Gate: How would the development of the green sector affect the relationship with the United States, particularly on trade?

RJ: If Mexico is really going to open up the petroleum sector, the real beneficiaries for the United States are US oil services and equipment companies. Ironically, the president complains all the time about the trade deficit with Mexico. That deficit is likely to reverse and become almost negligible because of the oil industry purchases by Mexico. Lopez Obrador is also talking about increasing Mexico’s refinery capacity. One thing that’s interesting is almost all of the oil Mexico extracts has to be refined in the United States then imported back into Mexico because they have so little refining capability. It’s billions of dollars to build new refineries, and I’m not sure if it’s a good investment. I think Mexico, like many other countries, will transition to other forms of energy.

Gate: Do you think that the strategy of investing in the local and agricultural communities and allowing the production of green energy machines to be domestic is viable? Will there be positive consequences?

RJ: There would clearly be positive consequences in terms of job creation in Mexico in some of the poorest areas and for the continuing effort to keep its Kyoto and Paris commitments. Mexico was the first developing country to commit to targets under Kyoto. That has been a policy commitment that outlasted changes in government. There’s clear benefit to that both in investment and ultimately in sustainable energy where you can reduce costs. One of the biggest problems Mexico faces is the energy costs despite being an oil producer. For businesses or consumers, the prices are still higher than they ought to be.

Gate: Do you think this will positively or negatively affect the efforts in Latin American countries to provide employment opportunities for women?

RJ: When you look at rural or indigenous communities, it has to be helpful. You may be able to provide an increased amount of jobs or, if you can sort out land titling issues, then you got the rent possibilities for wind turbines and other things. I’m not sure I really know as a gender perspective whether this would be beneficial or not.

Gate: During your time at the State Department, what was one of the issues you were most passionate about working with Mexico?

RJ: Oh, that one’s easy—education. One of the things we can work on is exchange programs. When I started, there were more US students going to Costa Rica than to Mexico, which is astonishing. The second thing we have to focus on is how we train both of our work forces to actually be ready for twenty-first century employment, which means not only technical skills but how we make sure we are creating a workforce that is multicultural. One of the things that I worked on and helped create in the State Department was Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas, the goal of which is to get one hundred thousand students from Latin America to study in the United States and vice versa. One of the proudest things I worked on was the exchange programs between Mexican Polytechs, which are their tech schools, and US community colleges. Because I think those kids tend to be poorer, older—they have families—and they work, they can’t necessarily leave for a semester or a year. But if you can design programs for a month, it still gives people an amazing cultural experience that they can bring into their workplace and really be twenty-first century workers.

The image is courtesy of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and Zane Maxwell. The original can be found here.

Paige Brann


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