A globalized Mexico which is so connected to other countries that its road signs have been translated into four languages. That was the vision which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seeded in the imagination of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro 27 years ago for his movie Cronos.
In 1993, when Del Toro was making his debut film, Herminio Blanco was Mexico’s lead negotiator for the trade agreement with the United States and Canada. Together with his team, the economist was orchestrating the country’s first steps towards globalization. This event stoked the fantasy of a cultural connection, beginning with languages.
The cultural landscape imagined by the filmmaker didn’t come about. What did happen was the result of Blanco’s work, which surprised even him, as exports of Mexican goods make on average more than 1 billion dollars a day, according to Banco de México. His involvement in the trade agreement, which came into effect in 1994, changed the country’s course and ushered in a new economic age.
Blanco was born in July 1950 to a middle class family from Chihuahua. He and his brothers Arturo and Enrique studied at Tecnológico de Monterrey on different types of scholarships, which were a boon to their parents, as they couldn’t pay all of the tuition fees.
The education received by Blanco and his brothers was due in large part to their mother’s initiative. She was a woman who was determined to improve the living conditions of her family through academic preparation. This was a goal that was difficult to achieve in Chihuahua in the 1950s.
Once Blanco had completed his studies at Tec de Monterrey, his eyes were already set on the next academic challenges. To continue studying, he traveled to the University of Chicago, where he obtained a PhD in Economics in 1978, the same year he became an advisor to the then Minister of Finance and Public Credit, David Ibarra Muñoz.
In the 1980s, he combined public service with teaching, then became Undersecretary for International Trade, lead negotiator of NAFTA, and was even appointed Minister of Trade and Industrial Development during President Ernesto Zedillo’s time in office.
With more than 30 years’ experience in public and private sectors, Blanco has become one of the main international trade specialists in Mexico. His name was even on the shortlist for the directorship of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Last February, he received the Exatec 2020 Career Award, which he was given at the Tec’s Annual Board Meeting.
- What does this award mean to you?
I’m so proud. You never know about the selection process, but once they choose you, you feel proud! Above all, when you receive it in front of an audience of Tec de Monterrey board members, who are successful people that are concerned about Mexico. It’s an honor.
It’s interesting when you think about the financial side, because I wouldn’t have been able to study here if it hadn’t been for the partial support we received from Tec de Monterrey. My mother suffered every month to make the payments. I obtained a partial scholarship. I think my brother Arturo got a full scholarship and my brother Enrique had a partial one. It would have been very difficult for all three of us to complete our studies at the Tec without that support.
This has a very special meaning for me, especially when I remember that my mother and father didn’t finish elementary school. They were middle class people in a town where people only studied up to fourth grade at elementary school. If they wanted to keep studying, they had to leave town and go to the state capital. But my mom was self-taught. She was the one who decided and said, “My sons aren’t going to stay in this town. We’re going to give them the best.” This award is in recognition of them.
- How did your education at Tec de Monterrey affect your family?
I think they had a better quality of life once my father had finished paying for the education of all three brothers. When they’d finished paying for my younger brother’s education, they started traveling, because my parents loved to travel. I didn’t behave so badly when I started earning money. They were very proud that we’d finished our courses.
- What do you think have been the most difficult times you’ve faced in your career?
Academically speaking, the first exam I took at the University of Chicago. I realized that all my classmates were very scared. I saw the exam and said to myself, “They’re not asking me about anything I studied.” I started studying then. They don’t ask you about what you studied, but you’d better have some ideas, because they’re not asking you to recite, but to think.
At Tec de Monterrey, you’d do well if you’d studied, if you’d thought about it, and you understood it. It was very different there (in Chicago). My classmates had been the best in their schools. It was difficult to encounter these people who’d come from good economics schools in the United States, Israel, and Chile. Graduating from the University of Chicago was very important to me.
Professionally speaking, being put in charge of the Free Trade Agreement negotiation and completing it was fundamental, both academically and professionally, If some people don’t remember what Mexico used to be like, there’s been a sweeping change from the north of Mexico to the east and west.
I’m from Chihuahua. When we used to go to El Paso, Texas, which is a city today but used to be a town, it was like going to Disneyland for us because of the prices and everything you could buy. They sold pants for 7 dollars!
You’d buy expensive toys in Mexico that would break straightaway. Unfortunately, the younger generations don’t realize the great change that opening up the economy has caused.
- Is it possible to have better trade cooperation with the United States?
You have to see it as an opportunity. No-one has the level of development that we have, as well as this border with the United States. We could sell one kilometer of this border for billions of dollars. All the countries in Asia are far away and have done things (many of them) better than we have in Mexico, but geography is fundamental.
This interview forms part of the Special Issue of Tec Review for May/June 2020. You can read the magazine for free here.