June 28, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Carrie Kahn

Deep Dish: Mexico’s Election - Violence, Corruption and Change

The Mexican presidential election already has a presumed winner. Who is he, and what does it mean for him to campaign against corruption and violence? NPR’s International Correspondent in Mexico City, Carrie Kahn, explains how this election is Mexico’s anti-establishment statement and why President Trump may not be relevant to the campaign.

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This is Deep Dish On Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about Mexico's election, which is happening this Sunday, July 1st. Some people are describing it as the most important election in decades, and even some are calling it the biggest election in Mexico history. To help us understand this election and its significance, I'm joined by Carrie Kahn, who is the National Public Radio's international correspondent based in Mexico City. Welcome Carrie, it's great to have you on.

Carrie Kahn: Thanks so much for inviting me, I appreciate it.

Brian Hanson: I wonder if you can start off by just setting out for us why is this election so important? There's been, as I mentioned, big superlatives attached to this significance of this election. What's at stake and why is it so important?

Carrie Kahn: I think on the short answer, the reason why everybody's saying it's the biggest election is by sheer number. Mexico tried to align its federal elections with its state and local elections as a cost saving issue, so there's 18,000 positions open, everything from the entire Congress, well, president of course, but the entire Congress, state legislators, hundreds of mayoral positions, everything. So that's why they're saying it's the biggest. I do think it's historical, but as you live your life, everything in the moment is historical and the biggest importance to you.

If you look at Mexico's democratization process, it's fairly new. It really just started in the late 1990s and really took off with the 2000 election of Vicente Fox from an alternative party that broke the PRI's decades-long control of the country. I think what's significant about this one, if the polls are right and it looks like they probably are, is that the leftist's populist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from his brand new party he started himself, is poised to win, which means the two major parties that have alternated power during this democratization party will be out.

So this is an anti-establishment vote, much similar to what we've seen around the world, but very particular to Mexico. Just off the bat, I want to say this isn't really Mexico taking a turn to the left, because in a whole ... The Mexican electorate is very conservative, so what this is, is just an anti-establishment, anger vote of Mexicans to throw out the established parties and go for something totally new. Everybody says they want change. This is a change vote.

Brian Hanson: This is interesting. I want to unpack that, because you put a lot on the table.

Carrie Kahn: Sorry.

Brian Hanson: No, it's fine. I just want to pull some of it out and note that synchronizing all these elections at once also has the tendency to have a very big political outcome. If you've got mayors, and the president, and Congress all responding to a momentary set of political concerns, there can be a strong alignment that can have a big political impact, I would think.

Carrie Kahn: Definitely. Yeah, definitely. That's what I think people are looking at now as the presidential race isn't that close, and isn't that dramatic, and probably won't have any surprise, but we never know. Polling is always difficult in Latin America, but it looks like there's such a large lead that the presidential election is set. Everybody's looking down ballot and what that means, and I think they're correct. Let's see how far López Obrador's coattails take him, and it could be a major shift in the country.

Brian Hanson: So let's start with López Obrador. He's been on the Mexican political scene for quite a while, his third run for president. What's he stand for? What's he running on?

Carrie Kahn: He is the anti-corruption candidate. That is what he talks about at all his rallies. That's his stump speech. That is the majority of everything he talks about. It's all about throwing out the bums, getting rid of what he calls the mafia, [Spanish 00:04:30], the power mafia here, the elites. He is going to clean everything up. It is going to be an austere government. He is going to cut salaries of these bureaucrats that are making exorbitant amounts. He says he's going to cut from the top and give to the bottom, and he says, "If that makes me a populist, then sign me up." I just gave you the stump speech in a nutshell. I've heard it so many times. That's what he's really running on.

The rest is very murky. There's not a lot of details. It's very vague. That's part of the questions a lot of the electorate have. It's interesting that you say he's been on the scene for such a long time. He gave his closing campaign speech last night, and I think the first 20 minutes was thanking every past leftist in the country. It really gave you a sense of his historical position in the left movement and the opposition, as he calls it, in Mexico. He was going back to the '50s and the '60s, and he was strongest in the opposition in the '70s. He said, "On election night, all these people," because so many in the opposition have died ... Because he's 64 years old, he's been around for a long time. He said, "They're all going to be celebrating in heaven as they watch us finally win this historic victory for the opposition. It was really interesting to really get a sense of how long he's been around.

Brian Hanson: In the United States, we've got a sense of what political corruption means. We have a president who ran on a platform to throw out the bums, drain the swamp in this country. In Mexico, does it mean the same thing? What do people have in mind when they are against corruption?

Carrie Kahn: It's really interesting. When you talk about corruption here, it's just on so many different levels that you ... I didn't understand it until I lived here, really understand what corruption is. It's so pervasive. What we've seen in this administration is a level of corruption I don't think ... Maybe it's because of the Internet, and a rise in civil society, and the investigative journalism here that we understand it a lot more, but what we're talking about is ... I think the best way to look at it as insider trading.

When you are in a position of power, you can influence so much money that's going around. What they always do is they'll start fixing the sidewalks. What happens is that the local council will put a bid out, and then somebody will come in with a higher bid, and that extra padding, he gets to keep. The person that did the work was his sister's company, and then they padded it a little bit, and then they get to keep that. It's that kind of manipulation of public funds.

Then, on a grander scale, we could look at the state of Veracruz, which is just obscene, the amount of corruption that went on with the past governor from the PRI party. Hundreds of millions of dollars were stolen from the state coffers. What they determined was that he set up hundreds of what they call ghost businesses, fake businesses. Some were in the name of maybe his driver, or maybe the maid, or maybe the neighbor. They would funnel money through these fake campaigns, through these fake companies, that maybe changed hands two or three times, to launder state money that was just stolen. In one case, he set up a business that would buy children's chemotherapy drugs and would sell them to the hospital, and he sold them water. You just have to ... In those drugs, just the level of corruption that would allow you to sell chemotherapy drugs to children that was water?

I just don't think people understand how insane this corruption has gotten, from the top level. The president was implicated in several influence-peddling corruption stories, corruption scandals, and nothing ever happens here in Mexico. That's what's frustrating people so much, is that there is utter impunity. When you look at that governor of the state of Veracruz and the level of corruption that was happening there, it started becoming so obvious, he actually had to step down. He appointed the next governor to take over for him. So he steps down. That governor provides him a helicopter to escape out of the state, and he catches a flight into Guatemala, and was in hiding for months. They were looking for him. Nothing happens to the interim governor that provided him the helicopter to escape, nor all the people that escaped there.

Then they finally catch him, and what usually happens, and as it's been explained to me is, he will then negotiate his return, his extradition back to Mexico. He negotiates it in such a way that he knows that there is not enough evidence for the crimes that they are charging him. There's so many charges that have been dropped against the governor. He's back in Mexico. He's in jail, but he will probably be out in three years because of lack of evidence, or poor prosecutorial conduct, or something. It's what always happens. It's that level of impunity that is just driving voters to the polls for López Obrador in their anger, and they really want a change.

It's so intense. A lot of influence-peddling. That's what López Obrador says, because if you know that a highway's going to come here. Let's say you're the governor or you're a state legislator. Why don't I move it just a couple kilometers down the road? I'm going to buy this piece of land that is worth nothing, but I know that I can get the highway to go through there. So I buy it for nothing, I direct the highway through there, and then I sell it for five times more. How is it that these legislators that have been only political public servants are millionaires? It's that kind of corruption that's just driving the anger of this vote.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. It sounds very, very visible and very present in society. One of the things that's been really striking, and actually just extraordinary, is how this bloody election campaign has been overall. I believe there's something like 130 politicians and campaign workers that have been killed since the fall when the campaign started, and something like 48 or so of those were actual registered candidates. That's unimaginable. Who is committing this violence, and why are candidates such targets?

Carrie Kahn: I think one of the questions is, how is this permissible?

Brian Hanson: Yeah.

Carrie Kahn: Think about it. If this was happening anywhere else and they were killing candidates at the numbers that they are, wouldn't they halt the election? Something would happen big, right?

Brian Hanson: Yeah.

Carrie Kahn: All the focus would be on that, but think about back to what I was saying about who holds the power. The majority of these, all of these I think, killings have been in small towns. These families ... It's not necessarily organized crime. A lot of it is organized crime, but the power structures in these towns are similar to the power structure in the country. Somebody holds the power in this little town. They're concerned about this historic change coming, this wave coming. Because there is no rule of law in many of these small towns, in many places in Mexico, utter impunity, they just kill them, and that is exactly what's happening.

It's a symptom of the degradation of the social fabric in these small towns. If you look at where the killings are, a lot of them are in very conflictive states like Michoacan, Guerrero, even in Puebla here. A lot of times, they are power structures in collusion with organized crime gangs. Sometimes they are drug traffickers that have always controlled who has been the power political structure in the town. Sometimes it's just powerful families, powerful business interests that have always controlled those power structures in those towns, and they feel a change coming. It's not just one party that has been targeted. All parties have, because it's whoever held the power. Those that are challenging it are the ones that have been killed. It's just incredible, and the fact that it hasn't gotten more attention is just part of the impunity situation here in this country.

Brian Hanson: I want to ask about one more piece in the electoral mix right now, which is, in this country, of course President Trump has made strong attacks against Mexicans, against the Mexican government, on immigration issues, on drugs, on violence. We've seen in our own public opinion polling here a huge change in public opinion on Mexico in terms of their favorability ratings in the U.S. Just at the end of 2017, we did a poll and found 65% of Mexicans reported an unfavorable view of the U.S. What's so striking about that is that just the year before, in 2016, it was pretty much the opposite. 66% of Mexicans in 2016 held a favorable view of the U.S. Has anti-U.S., anti-Trump feelings entered into this election, or is it really about these issues of corruption and impunity of elites that you've been talking about?

Carrie Kahn: I'd say Trump is really not a factor in this race. When people are calculating how they're going to the polls, relations with the U.S. and who will stand up to Trump, or who won't, or who feels like they can get a better deal for Mexico really isn't a question. One of the things is all three of the candidates are saying the exact same thing. They're saying, "We will ensure that the U.S. respects Mexico. We will not take this lying down." They all pretty much say the same thing, and then they also say, where the current administration has been stuck in is that we will negotiate with the U.S., because none of them are calling for Mexico to pull out of NAFTA. The leftist populist, López Obrador, isn't calling for an end to NAFTA. Nobody is, but they're all saying, "We will negotiate. We will negotiate from strength." I don't know where they're going to get that strength, but they're saying that, "We will demand respect." I think that's probably why it hasn't been an issue.

I also think that a lot of Mexicans, because our economies are so integrated now, because so many Mexicans have so much connection with the U.S., whether it's through family members, or traveling back and forth across the border, I just think people really separate Americans, and Trump and the Republican government. The anti-U.S. sentiment is growing when you ask them personally, and I've felt it here from people angry. They shout things and say things that I've never experienced before in Mexico, but I don't think it's so pervasive. It's definitely not an issue in the race.

Brian Hanson: I want to transition from talking about the current election campaign to looking into the future and what we can expect. You started by saying there's synchronized elections, the presidency, Congress, mayors, etc. We've got a pretty good sense of who's going to come out of this in the presidency. What's the composition of Congress going to be? Is Congress going to be of the president's party, or will there be a significant opposition in Congress?

Carrie Kahn: That's an interesting question, and I'd have to say simply I don't think we know, because polling is so difficult. The Mexican proportional representational system is difficult. It's hard to project that out, especially in the Senate. In the lower house of Congress, I think it's an easier formula. It's funny. Whenever I criticize electoral formulas, I don't think anything could be more of a mystery to the world than the U.S. Electoral College, so take that with a grain of salt. It's not that complicated.

The Senate ... It's interesting, because the Senate was ... The way the seats are doled out was made in a way to ensure that there was an opposition. It was constructed that way during the '70s and '80s, during a lot of social discontent in the country, because this was toward the end of the reign of the PRI. They gave concessions to the opposition that would allow them to get more seats in the Senate. The House, the lower Congress, is still by proportion.

It looks like ... I've talked to some analysts, and they think they have a pretty good model of how to extrapolate that. It looks like López Obrador will have a majority in the lower house of Congress, and that he might have might a pretty good, solid bloc in the Senate. What that means is that he has pledged, during his campaign, to be a middle-of-the-road politician. He says he's not going to change a lot of the structural reforms that were put in place. There isn't going to be an economic shift from the neoliberal model to a leftist model, per se. He does say his two major priorities will be to increase pensions for the old and increase scholarships for the young. Those are two social spending projects that he is going to do no matter what.

Then he says in the next breath that he will not increase the national debt. The debt under the center PRI party has nearly doubled in this last six years. A lot of that spending, you could say, was not well spent. It's unclear. Not a lot of it was done in social programs to raise people out of poverty because people have not been taken out of poverty during the six years that he has been in power. López Obrador says he will not increase the debt at all, but those are his two major priorities.

He had a little key phrase in his speech, his closing campaign speech, where he said ... It doesn't rhyme in English, but in Spanish, it's, "Scholarships, yes. Assassins, no." It was kind of interesting. That's his way to cut into the violence that is going on here. He wants kids to go to school and to have opportunities so that they don't go into organized crime and drug trafficking.

The other uncertain question there is López Obrador abandoned his leftist party that he started, that he was long a member of, the PRD, which has always been the main leftist opposition in the country. He abandoned that when it looked like they weren't going to let him run for president for a third time. He started his own party. That old leftist party formed a coalition with the right of center. This is where ideologies in Mexico, you just throw them out the window. You have this coalition of the right conservative party and the leftist party. They're going to gain some numbers in the Senate. I don't think ... We'll have to see, but they're going to gain some numbers for that leftist PRD party. I think they're going to vote in a bloc with López Obrador's Morena party.

We may see that leftist bloc of López Obrador's coalition push for some more of those leftist agenda items, which could include maybe ... I was talking to an analyst and saying, "He wouldn't have a two-thirds majority in the Congress, enough to overturn structural reforms that were happening, that happened during this last six years, including the energy reform, which opened the national oil industry to foreign investment." He doesn't have enough votes to overturn that, but he could tinker with the secondary laws. That could be insisting on more national content in any sort of elicitations that are happening, any sort of bids going out, and things like that. We'll have to see how much they push a little bit of this economic agenda that has been in place in Mexico for so long to the left.

I think it's going to be a struggle for López Obrador because he has not articulated exactly what his legislative agenda is. He's wanted to stay in the middle and assuage fears that he was this Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or Castro's Cuba, he was going to take Mexico to the left. He's been very vague about what his legislative agenda is. I think we're going to hear more about it, and he may have a harder time controlling that leftist bloc if they have a good, strong hold on the Senate and the lower house.

Brian Hanson: That's really interesting. In addition to the economic agenda, with populist leaders, and it's been raised with López Obrador, too, there is often a concern about commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions. You talked earlier about how Mexico's democracy really only dates back to about 2000. Previous to that, it was single-party rule. Some people point to López Obrador, concern in 2006 when he ran for president, came in second, and declared himself the winner of the race, and actually mobilized people onto the streets of Mexico City for months to block traffic. What is the sense of what is his commitment to the democratic institutions? As a charismatic populist leader, is this important to him?

Carrie Kahn: That's interesting, because that is a question a lot of people have. A lot of people greatly remember that. The largest traffic jam ever in Mexico City, that did go on for months. In his closing campaign speech and on the stump, he says, "I am committed to all ideas, all diversity of ideas. Everybody will have a place in my government." He keeps saying that. He did give a few digs to civil society a few times, but that is what he keeps saying. He is not an authoritarian. He will listen to all sides, and he is inclusive. I guess we'll just have to see which López Obrador will come out. He says he's going to work from 6:00 a.m. until 6:00 at night, or I don't know what. He didn't give an end time, but he's going to be the hardest working president. He's going to be an austere government.

He's going to involve everybody. I just think we're going to have to wait and see. He has brought a lot of different people into his coalition right now, from this far-right evangelical party to moderate businessmen, to he still has the old lefties on there, so he has been listening to a lot of different people, and he's kind of come out in the middle during the campaign.

Brian Hanson: That's interesting. It's different from some of the strategies that we've seen employed by other populists in different parts of the world. I want to talk about the courts of Mexico for a moment, because they played this really interesting role recently, I think, where they've been a much stronger advocate for human rights.

I guess the most famous case is this 2014 case where 43 college students were kidnapped and disappeared. The government went through an investigation that many people didn't find very credible. Earlier this month, a Mexican federal court ordered the government to undertake a new investigation of what happened, who's responsible. What I found really amazing about it was the court said it wouldn't just be the standard investigators who would do this, but it would be overseen by a truth commission led by the nation's top human rights bodies and parents of the victims. With the courts playing this increasingly assertive role, is that something that's likely to continue, or could it be endangered with the change in power?

Carrie Kahn: If you listen to what López Obrador says, he is in favor of a strong, independent judiciary. He has said that many times, that he wants to ensure that there is an independent attorney general, which there is not. Similar to the United States, the attorney general here is appointed by the U.S.

Brian Hanson: By the president.

Carrie Kahn: The U.S. has a long precedent and strong precedent of that being an independent position. Mexico is just the opposite, in that the attorney general's office has come under such fire for being just a puppet of the president. We've seen that in recent scandals, especially the disappearance of the 43 students, as you said.

I don't think the courts here are as independent or as heroic on the whole. I wouldn't paint that picture. I am very cynical, sorry. I just find that there are very few heroes in the government here. The court did take a strong stand there. The court also took a very strong stand for legalizing gay marriage. Gay marriage is legal throughout Mexico. It was not the legislators. That was the court that said it was a human rights issue. Mexico has one of the most progressive, amazing constitutions in the world. It's just not enforced.

They just passed ... You were asking about corruption earlier. Check this one out. This drives me insane. Pena Nieto in 2004 helped push through this amazing anti-corruption law, with a structure that involved civil society, all forms of government, and a plurality on this commission that would investigate, subpoena power, just everything. It was just an amazing anti-corruption law.

What they also threw in there was that none of the law would go into effect until a lead prosecutor that ran the whole thing was appointed. What did they do for the last four years, five years? They blocked any appointment of that top prosecutor, so none of those great laws went into effect during his entire administration. It's just things like that. You just want to throttle somebody. López Obrador says, "I am not going to make any new laws. We have amazing laws. Let's just enforce them."

Brian Hanson: What do we expect him to do in terms of corruption? Is it that we expect him to enforce the existing laws? Corruption, as we've talked about, with the evidence from the killings in small towns of the election, there are a lot of people who have a lot at stake here. Do we know what his strategy is going to be in order to root out corruption?

Carrie Kahn: What he says, and this is what's frustrating to many people, is that he is going to lead by example, in that he will get up at 6:00 in the morning. He's going to check in with everybody. He's going to be on top of everything, and he is going to run an austere, clean, honest government. He is not going to live in the Presidential Palace. He's not going to fly the presidential plane or helicopters. He's only going to have the minimum amount of bodyguards, and he's going to be the most honest president that there ever was, and everyone around him will be honest. That's how he's going to clean up corruption.

Mexico is a big country, with almost 130 million people. He can't oversee anybody. I hear him, what he was saying about leading by example, because if you look at it in the opposite direction, Enrique Pena Nieto, the current president, has led by example, allowing rampant corruption and impunity, which has overtaken the country. Maybe López Obrador has a point. Maybe on the other side of it, he can lead by example and clean things up, but I think there's a lot of details lacking in his plan. I don't know. We're going to have to see. It's going to take incredible political will and a lot of really good people to clean this up, and it's going to take a lot of time. I think that really the focus should be on strengthening Mexico's weak institutions, and we haven't heard a lot about how he's going to do that.

Brian Hanson: That's interesting, because that tends to be when corruption is effectively addressed, is when there are strong institutions. It sounds like he's said some of the right things, but his history is political mobilizations are what he's best, and not necessarily-

Carrie Kahn: Sadly, you also need money to strengthen institutions, the police force, the judicial branch. Policemen need to be paid more. Prosecutors need to be paid more, crime labs, things like that. He has a very ambitious social agenda in a time when Mexico's economy is not growing and foreign investment, a lot due to Mexico and the corruption that's here, but also with this vitriol being thrown at it by President Trump, which has a lot of foreign investment just being put on hold here. You have a tough economic climate for López Obrador coming in, where he's going to need money to shift some of his priorities. Where is he going to get it? As long as these NAFTA negotiations are so murky, people are putting their economic plans on hold, and they have for more than a year. That doesn't help the situation in a lot of ways.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. What do we expect from this new administration in Mexico and how that might affect the relationship with the U.S., NAFTA renegotiations being probably one of the most important issues?

Carrie Kahn: López Obrador has said he will continue to negotiate with the United States and Canada. He always throws in Canada there, because they're sort of allies now. They want a good NAFTA deal. López Obrador would love, as Trump asked for, higher wages in Mexico too, so that's kind of an interesting coincidence there. He says he has appointed a NAFTA negotiator who is very well thought of in the financial sectors, so it doesn't sound like he's going to change anything new, and he will continue the negotiations.

In terms of dealing with Trump, it'll be very interesting. I don't know if he's going to match tweet for tweet or he's going to acknowledge every tweet or slur that are president throws at Mexico, as he's done. It's a tough situation, because you can't piss Trump off too much, because Mexico needs NAFTA. They've invested so much in NAFTA. They were given this deal saying, "Come along with us, and we'll bring you into the First World. We'll help you modernize. Follow our rules," and Mexico has followed the rules for 30 years. To have the rug torn out from under them just doesn't seem quite fair.

Brian Hanson: A lot to watch for there. As we close, I was wondering what you think is missing from the coverage or the general understanding of this Mexican election and its consequences.

Carrie Kahn: It's tough to write for a U.S. audience about Mexico, because the stereotypes are so strong, and they're just being hammered at them daily by this president. Which is unfair, because there's a lot of people in Mexico that really want a change. The situation has deteriorated so greatly, and so I don't think there's a lot missing. I just think it's hard to understand the situation in Mexico and its complexity. This is a big country, and it has such diverse regions. You really have to be invested to want to know all about it. People can come, and come to the resorts, and things like that, or some other people travel distinctly to certain regions of the country, or some people have business along the border.

I don't know. It's just such an immense, amazing country, and I just hope they can see that people do want change. Mexico isn't full of a whole 130 million corrupt people. It's just really hardworking, family-oriented, determined people that really want things to be better, and I just really hope it does get better. I'm very skeptical that it will.

My biggest fear is that what usually happens when these power changes and political parties change in states, we've just seen the eruption of violence grown even greater. If you look at where there's been a change in government in these state governments, that's where the worst violence has taken place. I just think that 2019 is going to be an incredibly bloody year. It's just hard to say that, but it's going to take a long time to make the changes that are needed here in this country.

Brian Hanson: Thanks for that. I think it's really important for all of us to understand, ultimately, these political situations are about people's lives. One of the things I appreciate about you and your reporting from Mexico, both being on this show but also your day to day work at NPR, is it provides all of us with a window into the realities of Mexico. Thank you so much for coming on the show, and thanks for all that you do with your reporting to help us understand it.

Carrie Kahn: Thanks so much. That's nice to hear.

Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs or NPR. If you liked the show, please let us know by tapping the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode, please take a moment, tap the share button, and send it to them as well. If you have any questions about anything you heard today, or if you want to know about upcoming episodes in advance and submit questions for upcoming guests, please join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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