Identity and prestige: remembering Comercio Exterior's early days
Comercio Exterior is celebrating 70 years of uninterrupted publication, often against all odds. Many generations of experts have published their research in the magazine, broadening the perspective that hundreds of thousands of readers have on Mexico and the world. Jorge Eduardo Navarrete, now an eminent ambassador, led Comercio Exterior as the head of publications at Bancomext from 1967 to 1972. We talked with him about the magazine's golden age and the challenges it must overcome to maintain its relevance.
Por: César Guerrero Arellano

What did running Comercio Exterior mean to you? Comercio Exterior was always required reading material for reference and even as a collectible among those interested in Mexico's economy, foreign trade and international finance. Manuel Vázquez Díaz, a Peruvian economist living in Mexico, proposed to the bank's director at the time, Ricardo J. Zevada, to establish a publications department that would provide current information combined with theoretical and even speculative analysis through a monthly magazine. At that time, information media were scarce and sometimes very difficult to access.

I was already a regular reader of Comercio Exterior, of both its informative sections (national, Latin America and international) and of the very wide and diverse range of opinion articles on both Latin American and other regional economies. The magazine always had an international bent. During that time Latin America aspired to achieve strong regional integration through the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA), established in Montevideo, or the Latin American Economic System (SELA, for the acronym in Spanish), which was already very shaky and headquartered in Caracas. Perhaps that Latin Americanist vision was the most important of its interests. At the time, as a relatively advanced student of economics, these things led me to gladly accept Ignacio Pichardo Pagaza's invitation to fill the vacancy as head of the publications department, when he left Bancomext to embark on a distinguished, honorable and exemplary political career. 

The magazine was distributed free of charge. The subscriber's location —whether Mexico, Argentina, Chile or Europe— was not a limiting factor. It was sent by ordinary airmail to those who requested it by filling out a simple form. Since it was conceived as a social contribution to information and thought leadership, the bank assumed the shipping cost, which was significant.


Was it paradoxical to publish a foreign trade magazine in the Mexico of 1951? How do you view its initial objective and how did it evolve over time?

For me there is no paradoxical element. Since World War II, foreign trade has played a fundamental role in Mexico's economic growth. Even in that era, unjustly described as closed, the country found —in the words of the Swedish economist Linder— an incompressible minimum of imports, mostly inputs for industrial processing. Through its articles, Comercio Exterior experienced and recorded the transition from a fundamentally import-substitution economy to one that sought to establish itself —although it never fully achieved this— as a major exporter, especially in more accessible circles such as the Latin American regional market, later-industrialized European countries such as Spain or Ireland and other more distant and lesser known countries in the Far East or Africa, to where, unfortunately, there was never a systematic and sufficient export promotion system.

Between 1965 and 1970, Mexico was already an important exporter of industrial manufactured goods to these markets, especially to Latin America. From the 1970s onward, there was talk about the demise of the import substitution model. In my opinion, this notion never had a sufficiently solid empirical or theoretical basis. The idea of changing "one model that had been exhausted" for another one that went by many names, from free trade to dependent maquiladora industrialization, was given as an indisputable truth.

I believe that behind this there was an important ideological element, promoted in part by international finance organizations and other economic policy analysis and formulation entities, among which it is easier to cite the exceptions: the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). These two maintained the analysis and rationale, not in an autocratic way —as it sometimes attempted to do—, but in a way that combined the best elements of both paths. In Comercio Exterior there are many examples of theoretical articles that examine this. 


Publishing excellent insights, sometimes contrary to the official position, gives the magazine its valuable diversity. Were there any restrictions, and what were your publication criteria? 

In my personal experience, as Deputy Chief and Head of Publications, the bank's directors always assumed that the magazine should enjoy a great deal of autonomy. Sometimes they suggested addressing specific topics from the national debate, such as tax reform or the scope and limits of regional development projects in areas with a specific purpose, such as the Tepalcatepec or Papaloapan basins, or with geographic characteristics such as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec or the Yucatan Peninsula. But the magazine was always open to spontaneous collaboration. There was never a formal invitation to collaborate.

The bank's Economic Studies Department contributed with a permanent section called “Markets and Products”, which every month analyzed a market or a product from the perspective of its export potential for Mexico. It was an important section and an important collaboration. The length of the bibliography section varied considerably. We would always have liked to have more space. We would try to find the collaboration of an external economist, sociologist or political scientist to review books that had recently appeared in Spanish. 

For many, the most important section was the editorials. The head and sometimes the deputy head of the department would write two or three for each issue, based on consultation and discussion with members of the department. The bank's director took time to read, comment on and, on occasion, reformulate the opinions expressed in these materials, since they reflected the institutional opinion and, if personal, those of the general manager. In both Ricardo J. Zevada and Antonio Armendáriz, and later, Francisco Alcalá Quintero, I found an open and proactive attitude toward arguments that did not always coincide with the official line, but which they found sufficiently substantiated or that could be better substantiated based on our suggestions. In my decade as editor, I do not recall any major controversy over the content of the editorials in Comercio Exterior. As far as I remember, the bank's directors always defended the diversity of the magazine when they needed to.


If you did not ask for contributions, how did you get such a large number of proposals?

Perhaps in the beginning it was difficult. When I took over as editor, it was a very well-known magazine, not uniformly but selectively and effectively, in the right circles in Mexico and Latin America. When the Mexican economist Abel Beltrán del Río —then at the Wharton School of Economics in Philadelphia and under the guidance of the noted economist Lawrence Klein, Nobel laureate in 1980— prepared a paper on the regional employment impact of exporting sectors in Mexico, the Mexican journal that he thought of to publish his work was Comercio Exterior. We received an envelope with two articles that underwent the same procedure as any other, with the good fortune that these opened up a unique and attractive field of research. In addition to Beltrán del Río, Sergio de la Peña from ECLAC, Aldo Ferrer, Celso Furtado and many others recognized Comercio Exterior as forum to get their work noticed in important circles in Latin America. This, in an era prior to the current information explosion.

Anyone who asked if they could send an article was told it would be gladly received and considered by a small editorial committee that counted among its advisors such distinguished personalities as Miguel S. Wionczek and Enrique Angulo Hernández. On the staff of the publications department, I remember Armando Labra Manjarrez and Óscar Pandal Graf. The number of rejected articles was slightly higher than those accepted, often for reasons of space. Due to its costs, the magazine could not exceed, if I remember correctly, 120 to 140 pages per issue. One of these pages specified the guidelines and criteria for contributors, in terms of length or how to include graphs and statistical tables. In general, this guide was read and observed. On rare occasions, because there was not always time, we corresponded with the author to suggest shorter versions, and many authors understood that this was an expression of interest.


What size was the team and how did it work?

With minor variations, the magazine's editorial staff never exceeded ten. In addition to the two department managerial positions and secretarial support, there was a full-time manager for each of the informative sections: national, Latin America and international. They were also asked to read and give their opinion on one or two of the articles. 

There was a great debate about the free-of-charge nature of the magazine, most of which took place after I moved on to other responsibilities. Some held the popular and of course erroneous view that what is free is not appreciated. After an analysis, it was concluded that setting up a paid subscription service probably did not justify the cost of administration, especially during the magazine's expansion stage. The circulation was often variable but in general it maintained an upward trend, from 6,000 to 8,000 copies. As for the timely removal of subscribers who forgot to report a change or address or who were no longer interested in receiving the magazine, a criterion was established to remove those whose copy was returned by mail for the second time.


In the magazine's first era, controversy over the most appropriate development models for the country occupied significant space. Does this represent a mere historical reference or does it contribute to informing the current discussion?

Development models are an issue of great transcendence today, particularly in relatively less advanced regions —mainly in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in some Southeast Asian countries. I think there is a fairly broad consensus on the inefficiencies of the model that emerged after the 2008-2009 recession. It had existed before, of course, but since that setback, the discussion on economic policy and the most relevant development strategies has gained momentum in specialized literature. The resurgence of the developmentalist approach has debunked the assumption that the market has 99.9% of the answers. Within this theoretical approach is one coming from the once latent international organizations, which now points to a more decisive participation of the State in development tasks. A debate that, like so many other things, the pandemic interrupted and forced a new, unavoidable focus of attention.


What do you think is the current contribution of Comercio Exterior? Where should it be heading in order to maintain its relevance?

Comercio Exterior was perhaps the first product through which many people came to know Bancomext. At a meeting in Cartagena de Indias, of which I have a photo with Gabriel García Márquez, I said that I worked for Banco Nacional de Comercio Exterior de México and I was told: “Oh, yes, the bank that publishes a magazine”. I would not dare to say whether a digital publication would 

be as recognized or as tied to that of the institution that produces it, as has clearly been the case with Comercio Exterior and Bancomext.  One point that we have not touched on in our conversation is that a periodical that is done well becomes an important component of an institution's prestige, regardless of the number of readers or the quality of any of its articles. An important reason for maintaining the journal is its history and status. 


How can this important and unique archive be better utilized? How can we protect this asset, which belongs to the country? 

On the bank's website I can clearly picture a small but attractive box that would say "From the historical archives of Comercio Exterior”, which from time to time would publish a selected article from the magazine together with two or three links to complementary articles. They would not be topical, of course, but they would be of historical or theoretical interest, or material capable of reactivating a political debate or a relevant historical moment for foreign trade. Without something like this, it would be as if this patrimony did not exist, because no one will look for it buried in the inside pages.


What should be the essence of Comercio Exterior in the years to come?

It is valid to continue and extend an already very long experience. The magazine can preserve its relevance if it transcends the task of merely informing. In an increasingly digital world, some of Comercio Exterior's features from the past 70 years have lost relevance. The information needs it responded to during its first era —let's arbitrarily say until 1970— are very different from today's. Its readers were professionals and fundamentally scholars. Today readers are informed in a broader, more timely and varied manner by other media, some of it free. 

If the journal were to concentrate on the discussion of theory and policy, it would have to evaluate coldly what role it would play in the profession or in Mexico in comparison with overtly theoretical publications, such as El Trimestre Económico, or academic publications that appear once a year. Natural science journals are opting for digital publication, in English and without periodicity so that as soon as an article is approved, it is published online. While this is not comparable to the analysis and practice of economics, finance and foreign trade, it points to a pattern. How to combine a debate on the limits and scope of development with the examination and discussion of practical issues? Would it be efficient to replace a printed publication with a digital one that readers receive the day after it is ready? This is not an easy question for me or anyone else to answer.