The Cuba Deal Alone Justifies Opposition to Obama's Mexico Nominee

Tuesday, November 3, 2015
By Mauricio Claver-Carone in The National Review:

Roberta Jacobson Should Not Be the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico 

The United States’ relationship with Mexico is among the most important in the world. Common interests and broad concerns range from extensive commercial ties, border security, narcotics and other crime syndicates, to family and cultural heritage. It’s a relationship that merits the presence of a U.S. ambassador with extraordinary diplomatic skills, a result-oriented record of success, as well as direct access to the president of the United States.

President Obama’s nomination of Roberta Jacobson, currently serving as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, to become the U.S. ambassador to Mexico clearly does not meet this criteria.

Jacobson is a respected civil servant and administrator, but she is not a professional diplomat (Foreign Service officer) — and the objective of maintaining a diplomatic mission in Mexico is greater than simply “keeping the lights on” at our embassy. We should be upgrading our relations with Mexico to ensure we have the coordination and cooperation we need to deal successfully with the serious diplomatic challenges that our two nations face.

Any new ambassador to Mexico will need the absolute trust of the United States Congress, which, regrettably, Jacobson does not have. Any new ambassador to Mexico will need the absolute trust of the United States Congress, which, regrettably, Jacobson does not have. As assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Jacobson testified in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing held May 8, 2014, pursuant to the introduction of legislation (the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014) that sought to revoke the visas and to freeze the bank accounts of Venezuelan officials responsible for serious violations of human rights. In her testimony, Jacobson falsely claimed that opposition leaders from Venezuela’s Democratic Unity Roundtable opposed such targeted sanctions. That was blatantly untrue, but it was the position the Obama administration wanted to peddle at the time. Ultimately, Jacobson was forced to correct the record after being contradicted by the Venezuelan opposition leaders themselves.

While on the subject of Venezuela, there’s also the infamous case of Hugo Carvajal, a retired Venezuelan military general appointed consul-general to Aruba by Nicolas Maduro’s government. Carvajal was wanted in the United States on charges of cocaine trafficking. Hearing that Venezuela was appointing Carvajal to be consul-general in Aruba, U.S. prosecutors moved quickly to arrange his arrest upon arrival. But the government of Nicolas Maduro diplomatically outmaneuvered Jacobson to gain Carvajal’s release. Overnight, Carvajal went from being the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to being arrested on a U.S. warrant to receiving a hero’s welcome in Caracas.

Given this record, is Jacobson the person the United States wants negotiating with the Mexican government for the extradition of Sinaloa cartel kingpin, El Chapo, when he’s eventually recaptured by authorities? In fact, Jacobson led the State Department team that badly fumbled the diplomatic effort to extradite El Chapo prior to his recent tunnel escape from a Mexican prison.

Jacobson’s highest-profile assignment, however, was leading U.S. negotiations for normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, pursuant to President Obama’s December 17, 2014, initiative. Senators scrutinizing Jacobson’s nomination need look no further than her performance in that role.

Here are six reasons that Jacobson’s nomination as ambassador to Mexico should not proceed:

1. The Trafficking in Persons Report was politicized on Jacobson’s watch. Pursuant to the release of the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (“TIP”) report this summer, a Reuters investigation revealed that human-rights experts at the State Department concluded that trafficking conditions had not improved and Cuba did not deserve to be upgraded from a bottom Tier 3 ranking to Tier 2.

The reports indicated that senior officials in the department pushed without legal merit and prevailed in upgrading Cuba — as another concession to the Castro regime. Jacobson has admitted that she made a recommendation about Cuba’s status in the TIP report, but she has refused to share this recommendation — and its justification — with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During an August 2015 hearing on the TIP Report, all such input was requested from the State Department, and the committee chairman, Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), even threatened to subpoena the information.

It would set a terrible precedent for Jacobson’s nomination to proceed until and unless the State Department provides such information; until we know whether the issue of Cuba’s trafficking came up during negotiations with the Castro regime, and whether Jacobson advocated upgrading the island’s status, in spite of the objections of the State Department’s human-rights experts.

2. Rules for the U.S. Embassy in Havana fail to meet international legal standards. According to the deal negotiated by Jacobson with the Cuban regime for the establishment of diplomatic relations, only the top four diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana have purportedly unrestricted travel rights on the island. The remaining 47 diplomats must give “prior notice” before traveling, a clear violation of Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that “the receiving State shall ensure to all members of the mission freedom of movement and travel in its territory.” Similarly, Jacobson failed to reach any clear agreement with the Cuban regime on the inviolability of diplomatic pouches to the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Yet Article 27.3 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states, “The diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained.”

No other nation in the Western Hemisphere imposes similar restrictions on U.S. diplomats and pouches. Such a poor, short-sighted agreement not only raises questions about Jacobson’s skills as a negotiator; it also emboldens the Cuban regime’s allies in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua to pursue the same restrictions.

3. The U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism may have been politicized on Jacobson’s watch, leading to Cuba’s removal from the list. Was the recent removal of Cuba from this list compelled by political considerations (as seems to have been the case with the TIP Report as well)?

According to the 2014 Country Reports on Terrorism, released on June 19, 2015: “The Government of Cuba does continue to allow approximately two dozen members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty Organization (ETA) to remain in the country.”

This fact clearly did not change in the five months between December 31, 2014, and May 29, 2015, when Cuba was officially removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

According to the 2014 Country Reports on Terrorism, which was released on June 19, 2015: “The Government of Cuba does continue to harbor fugitives wanted to stand trial or to serve sentences in the United States for committing serious violations of U.S. criminal laws, and provides some of these individuals limited support such as housing, food-ration books, and medical care.”

Again, this fact clearly did not change in the five months between December 31, 2014, and May 29, 2015, when Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The State Department’s report recommending Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is based solely on a handful of “commitments” purportedly received from the Cuban regime. Again, Jacobson’s nomination should not proceed until the State Department substantiates these “commitments” in order to determine whether Cuba’s rescission was based on political considerations rather than on the criteria stipulated in law. Not to do so would set a terrible precedent vis-à-vis any future efforts to de-list the remaining state sponsors of terrorism — namely Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

4. Jacobson misled the families of Americans murdered by the Castro regime. Jacobson had conveyed to the families of Americans murdered by the Cuban regime, pursuant to the 1996 shoot-down of two civilian aircraft by Cuban MiG fighter jets over international waters, that the Cuban spies serving sentences in the United States — in connection with this crime — would not be released as part of any deal with the Castro regime. Yet they were released. Jacobson was obviously not forthright with these families. At a February 2015 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jacobson was unable to deny that these American families were misled and was clearly unapologetic. (See the exchange here.)

5. Jacobson misled Congress about human-rights standards for Cuba. Throughout 2015, Jacobson testified to Congress on various occasions that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba would not diminish the U.S.’s focus on the democratic aspirations for the Cuban people and would not quell criticism of human-rights violations on the island. Again, she was misleading. For example, no Cuban democracy activists were invited to the flag-raising ceremony at the new U.S. Embassy in Havana. Also, since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter account has covered a wide range of issues, such as climate change and sports, and it has even promoted Cuban government officials; yet there hasn’t been a single tweet promoting human rights and democracy from the embassy’s Twitter account. Meanwhile, Cuban democracy activists and human-rights monitors have documented a dramatic increase in repression since the Obama administration’s December 17 agreement, but the stepped-up repression has received scant response from the State Department.

6. Jacobson is unprepared on the legal fundamentals of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Finally, despite her role as lead negotiator with the Cuban regime, Jacobson was repeatedly and woefully unprepared to respond to congressional concerns. During one committee hearing, Senator Marco Rubio described — in detail — the Cuban military’s business conglomerates’ ownership of the island’s tourism- and travel-related service industry and the control exercised over it by the Castro family, through Raul’s son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas. Jacobson admitted she was unaware of this important fact. (See the exchange here.) In another exchange in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jacobson was asked to list the conditions of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (“Libertad Act”) but was unable to do so. Yet those conditions constitute the key framework of the United States’ policy toward Cuba. (See the exchange here.)

Now President Obama wants Senate Republicans to pin a medal on Jacobson for the poor execution of an already troublesome policy. They should not.

Jacobson’s nomination demonstrates President Obama’s lack of commitment to one of our most important allies. If Obama truly wants to prioritize the United States’ relationship with Mexico, he should nominate someone without such shortcomings, failures, and record of controversies.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and editor of in Washington, D.C. He is an attorney who formerly served with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and has served on the full-time faculty of The Catholic University of America’s School of Law and adjunct faculty of The George Washington University’s National Law Center.