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Trump’s US ambassador to Mexico is stepping down, to be replaced by a former CEO of GM and AT&T

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 5:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 5:06am

The US ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, is to step down this spring – a move that could further hurt a rapidly deteriorating relationship strained by major negotiations on trade, the controversial border wall project and an upcoming presidential election in Mexico.

An experienced diplomat and Latin America expert who took up the post in 2016, Jacobson is the latest in a string of high-level officials in the State Department to part ways with the Trump administration.

In a letter to embassy staff Thursday, Jacobson did not focus on her personal reasons for resigning, effective in May. She described it as a “difficult decision” but said it was “the right time to move on to new challenges and adventures.”

The Trump administration is looking to name Edward Whitacre Jnr, a former chief executive of both GM and AT&T, as her replacement.

Whitacre has also worked in the past with Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, according to US and Mexican officials familiar with the decision.

His name was first reported by the Mexican newspaper Reforma. White House officials have not responded to an inquiry.

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Whitacre, a Texas native, has been a former president of the Boy Scouts and a board member of ExxonMobil, which probably put him in contact with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also a Boy Scouts past president and a former Exxon chief executive.

A call to Whitacre was not immediately returned.

He will enter a fraught relationship between the United States and Mexico. Last month, US President Donald Trump and President Enrique Pena Nieto held a troubled phone call in which the two disagreed about Trump’s proposed border wall.

Pena Nieto called off a planned trip to Washington after the conversation, the second time during Trump’s tenure that a visit has been cancelled.

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Months of talks to reform Nafta have also not yet yielded a resolution.

If the new US ambassador pushes harder on Trump’s favourite themes – including stopping illegal immigration from Central America – the relationship could deteriorate further, according to Mexican analysts.

“This will become a more complicated relationship with the new ambassador,” Jorge Chabat, a professor at CIDE, a research institution in Mexico City, predicted.

Jacobson, who grew up in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and entered the State Department in 1986 during the Reagan administration, brought a wealth of Latin America expertise to the position of ambassador.

She is widely liked by Mexican officials, who often describe her as trying to preserve the productive relationship that existed during the Obama administration.

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“We Mexicans will miss Roberta,” said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, director of the Centre for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

“She did a wonderful job keeping communication channels open with her Mexican counterparts as President Trump both weakened the State Department and bashed Mexico. She was a blessing when the US-Mexico relationship most needed it.”

Jacobson began her career at the State Department as a White House management fellow. She has spent most of her career in the Western Hemisphere section, including as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and several other high-level positions.

State Department Undersecretary Steve Goldstein confirmed that Jacobson has announced her intention to retire and said Jacobson told Secretary Tillerson about the decision when he was in Mexico last month.

“We are grateful to her, and we are sorry to see her go,” Goldstein said.

Many observers expected Trump would replace Jacobson at some point and bring in someone who more closely shares his views.

Other Latin America experts, such as the US ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, have also announced their intention to leave their posts.

In her letter to the staff, Jacobson said her decision to leave was “all the more difficult because of my profound belief in the importance of the US-Mexico relationship and knowledge that it is at a crucial moment.”

Jacobson mostly highlighted the work of her subordinates.

“We have ensured criminals who prey on the most vulnerable faced justice, that women and children trafficked like merchandise were freed, that migrants knew their rights, that dangerous drugs were removed from the marketplace and reach of our children, that democracy was strengthened, and the judicial playing field levelled where we could,” she wrote.

“We have worked for American and Mexican prosperity, promoted exports from the United States and literally hundreds of US companies, and help generate good jobs that bring with them dignity.”