On Thursday, the US Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Mexico after a 10-month delay and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that included renewing sanctions imposed on Venezuelans and a State Department authorization bill.
Obama nominated career diplomat Roberta Jacobson for the Mexico City post in June, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed it with a 12-7 vote in November, sending it to the full Senate for confirmation.
But throughout that process she faced resistance from a few lawmakers for reasons including her role in negotiating Obama’s relations with Communist-run Cuba and concerns the administration had failed to make human rights a priority.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Bob Menedez of New Jersey both played spoiler during the nomination-approval process. Rubio placed a “hold” that kept her confirmation vote from going ahead.
Rubio, who is Cuban-American and a former 2016 Republican presidential candidate, opposes Obama’s moves toward normalizing relations with Havana and often pushes for the White House to take a stronger stand on human rights issues in Latin America.
He cited Jacobson specifically for what he viewed as shortcomings in the Obama administration’s policies in Latin America. “We need an ambassador in Mexico City that has the trust of Congress for this important post,” Rubio said in November 2015. “I do not believe that Ms. Jacobson is that person and will oppose her confirmation.”
Rubio’s hold, coming as the 2016 presidential campaign got underway, earned him reprobation from some critics who suggested he was playing politics with the US’s international relations.
This month, according to Reuters, Republican leaders and Obama administration officials came to Rubio to ask what would make him lift his hold on Jacobson.
He asked for an extension of a bill he introduced last year imposing sanctions on officials in Venezuela, another government he has criticised, for human-rights violations in connection with the suppression of anti-government protests.
Rubio’s conditions prompted some complex political wrangling between the Obama administration and members of the Senate, as detailed by Politico.
Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and a Republican from Tennessee, said he would block Rubio’s sanctions bill unless Republican Sen. Ted Cruz dropped his nearly yearlong hold on a separate State Department authorization bill, according to a Senate aide.
Cruz put that hold in place in response to the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, and Rubio asked him to drop it in return for Rubio’s help pushing a different Cruz-backed measure to rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington the Liu Xiaobo Plaza, after a Chinese activist currently jailed in that country.
With Cruz mollified, the Senate approved a three-year extension of the sanctions measure, the authorization bill, and Jacobson’s nomination in quick order on Thursday night, according to Politico.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he was pleased the Senate “finally” confirmed Jackson. “No one is more qualified than Roberta to represent the United States in Mexico,” he said in a statement.
Despite recent diplomatic reshuffling (Mexico has also appointed new people to top diplomatic posts in the US), US-Mexico relations have remained close while the ambassador post was vacant, even if ties were strained by harsh anti-Mexico rhetoric spouted by Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump over the last several months.
Jacobson will likely take up efforts to boost economic and commercial ties and address other politically sensitive matters, which include the “procedurally quite complex” extradition of Mexican kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán as well as Mexico’s increasingly dismal human-rights record.
(Reporting for Reuters by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)