Julissa Reynoso, the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay, is a Columbia University-trained lawyer who joined the U.S. State Department in 2009 as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America and the Caribbean in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Reynoso recently announced that she will step down as ambassador in December; she will return to New York to work at the law firm Chadbourne & Parke and teach a new course at SIPA on rule of law in Latin America (Seminar on Latin America: Challenges to Progress).
Reynoso emigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of seven. She grew up in in New York City’s South Bronx and went on to attend Harvard University as an undergraduate, then Cambridge University in England, and then Columbia Law School, from which she graduated in 2001. She recently spoke with SIPA News about her career, plans for her course at SIPA, and more.
Many of our students would be pleased to work at the State Department or its counterparts in other countries. What path took you there and then, since March 2012, to the ambassadorship in Uruguay?
A lot of intangibles came together to put me where I am.
I was born in the Dominican Republic. When you’re an immigrant, you bring an outside perspective—you’re always looking abroad for points of comparison. Growing up in New York City, a very international city, I was always surrounded by foreign references that conditioned me to think about the rest of the world.
So I always had an interest in international affairs. As a student and later as a professional, I wanted to make a difference in foreign policy, in human rights abroad, and I was always open to developing new skills and using them to help different organizations and institutions.
But even so I didn’t have the [explicit] goal of doing diplomatic work. I came to the State Department only after working on political campaigns — first for Senator [Hillary] Clinton, then presidential candidate Clinton, then candidate [Barack] Obama.
When Senator Clinton became Secretary Clinton, [the administration] asked me to submit my résumé, and I didn’t feel awkward because I had some experience in that space. That’s how I ended up at State [as deputy assistant secretary]. From there, I did the work and got completely immersed in problems that helped me understand more of Latin America and more of the U.S. role abroad—how to be a model for positive change and have a positive relationship with countries in the region.
How will the course you’ll be teaching at SIPA and Columbia draw on your experience?
Working in the State Department for five years, I’ve had the chance to evaluate challenges facing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. For the most part, these countries are doing well in terms of economic indicators and democratic governance. For many of them, the biggest challenge is security—literally personal security, people’s sense that their physical well-being is protected.
I’ve looked at the reasons behind the insecurity and how governments and societies have addressed these challenges. A lot of it has to do with giving people confidence that public institutions will protect them. What kind of mechanisms are effective? In addition to policy it’s also a question of law. That’s why the course is cross-listed at Columbia Law School—it deals with the judicial system, and fairness, and a broader concept of justice.
It’s an interesting combination of a bread-and-butter policy issue with the question why institutions in these countries that were created to protect citizens are not necessarily doing their job.
How did the opportunity come about to teach at SIPA?
I have relationships with a lot of people at Columbia. I’ve been in touch with John Coatsworth [Columbia University’s current provost, a former dean of SIPA, and a scholar of Latin America], who was my professor at Harvard, and also my contacts at the law school.
How do you feel about returning to New York?
I’m really looking forward to it! It’s been a fantastic journey but I’m looking forward to coming home. My family, my apartment, most of my friends—my roots are in NYC. I’ve been away five years, but I never really left. I’m a natural New Yorker, I always say.
Living and working in New York, there’s so much opportunity to have deep and transformative conversations about the world because of the interaction of people from all over the world—from immigrants to diplomats at the UN. It’s a very special place for people to come together and talk about the challenges we collectively face. As a diplomat, as an immigrant, I’m happy to be able to contribute to the pool of know-how.
And I’m really looking forward to being part of the Columbia community again, too. I’m looking forward to having fruitful conversations with students, faculty, administrators, fellow lawyers. I’ve learned tremendously, and believe I can add value to the discussion, and I hope my experience can serve to inform decision-making in the future.
photo credit: PRNewsFoto/Chadbourne & Parke