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The Women Leading the Way on Changing U.S.-Cuba Relations

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Author: Mfon Edet

The last few months have marked the historic breaking point of over 50 years of Cold War legacy tension between the United States and Cuba. Leading the way in the implementation this new era of U.S.-Cuba relations are two accomplished female diplomats. On January 21, 2015 U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson and Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal, general director of the United States Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) began major talks in Havana to rebuild U.S. relations with Cuba. That first meeting occurred in Havana less than 24 hours after President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address in which he re-stated his bold announcement that a new approach is needed in our foreign policy towards Cuba. The second meeting was held in Washington, DC on February 27, 2015.

As history is being made, it is exciting to see that these high-level talks are being headed by women. The positioning of these two experienced, knowledgeable, and trailblazing women in the talks represents an opportunity for both countries to work in a new way towards the bigger picture of fully normalizing relations between the two nations and moving into the rest of this 21st century together

So who are Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal?

 Roberta Jacobson 

Currently residing in Maryland, Roberta Jacobson, a fluent Spanish speaker, began her extensive career in foreign affairs and global relations with the United Nations and then transitioned to working for the United States government. Within the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Ms. Jacobson has taken on many roles, such as Coordinator for Cuban Affairs, Director of the Office of Policy Planning and Coordination, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico, NAFTA issues to name a few. Since 2012, she has held the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. She has, according to a New York Times editorial, “for years championed a policy overhaul, despite the fact that taking such a position historically has been politically risky for American diplomats.”

Josefina Vidal 

A multilingual Cuban native with extensive foreign relations experience, Josefina de la Caridad Vidal Ferreiro, better known simply as Josefina Vidal, served as First Secretary in the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC from 1999 to 2003. During this time her public popularity grew due to her presence in the highly publicized Elian Gonzalez custody battle. With a degree in International Studies from Moscow and her continuous years of experience in foreign affairs between Cuba and North America, Vidal’s leadership and knowledge is highly viewed as a strong force in Cuba’s foreign policy efforts. According to NYU professor Arturo Lopez-Levy, Ms. Vidal is an expert at her job and, “if someone were to predict the possibility of Cuba having its first woman chancellor, I would say it would be Josefina (Vidal Ferreiro) due to the depth and seriousness of her work.” Since 2013 she has held the position of general director of the United States Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

U.S.-Cuba Talks

These leaders concluded the first round of talks on January 23, 2015, in which they discussed immigration (“Wet Foot/ Dry Foot” Policy) and reestablishing embassies in both countries. For the second round of talks which occurred over a month later, it was speculated that Guantanamo Bay, dissident support, and Cuba’s placement on the State Department’s terrorist list would be discussed; however it appears the talks centered on the process and requirements for establishing embassies in both countries.

Both sides agreed that progress was made toward restoring diplomatic relations yet more must be accomplished, as there are still areas of disagreement. President Obama has stated that he wants relations restored prior to the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of all the Western Hemisphere’s presidents, including Cuba’s President Raul Castro. The Summit will be held in Panama the second weekend in April. Cuba, for its part, wants to hear that President Obama has certified Cuba for removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list prior to the Summit, which isn’t a pre-condition, but a priority says Ms. Vidal.

Ms. Jacobson and Ms. Vidal have both led their teams in a very engaging and goal-oriented manner thus far. According to the New York Times, they are both seen as being “very, very thorough, informed and tough, but they also have a sense of humor and a personal touch to their work.” As stated in many news outlets, reestablishing a relationship between the two countries will take time. Nevertheless we are pleased to see that when it comes to implementing foreign policy, women are leading the way.

photo credit: Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images