The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | Articles | Mexico/The Porfiriato | The Porfiriato

Email to a friend
Printer friendly

The Porfiriato

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry

The future dictator was born in 1830 in Oaxaca, as a mestizo (Mixtec and Spaniard). His family lived in modest circumstances; his father was an innkeeper in a small town. Attended seminary but decided on law. Juárez was an instructor in the 1aw school and influenced Díaz to the liberal cause. Díaz entered the military rather than finish law school.

He was a man's man. Rose naturally in the military leadership. Had courage. In 1854, when Santa Ana was dictator, he entered the voting plaza and shouted "No!" in the rigged plebiscite that was supposed to register unanimous approval of Santa Ana. Escaped and his reputation spread. He was one of the leaders who defeated the French at Puebla on May 5, 1862. When caught by Maximilian's forces, he refused a pardon and then made a daredevil from jail in 1865. Became a liberal hero. As Maximilian's empire collapsed, Díaz commanded a formidable army in Oaxaca. His was the first liberal army to enter Mexico City when the conservative forces withdrew.

After Juárez was back in power, Díaz privately deserted liberalism. He retained control of the Oaxaca state army, which gave him the opportunity to cultivate other generals, dominate state politics, and pile up a fortune.

His revolt against the Juárez reelection in 1871 failed but his revolt against President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada when he tried to re-elect himself succeeded. His Plan de Tuxtepec (1876) asserted that he was in favor of no-election and effective suffrage. He captured the government in 1876 primarily because he had army support. He was popular among the enlisted men and respected by officers. He seemed to have some popular support as well. He was a living legend. Diáz proclaimed himself the heir of Juárez. Conservatives soon realized that Díaz planned to smother the reform movement.

He also revealed other qualities once in power. He was determined to stay in office, and was willing to use murder to do it. He became a racial snob, conveniently forgetting his Mixtec ancestry. He became more snobbish and refined with time. His second wife came from an upper class family and encouraged his haughtiness. They repudiated the Amerind because they believed that the Indian impeded progress. Developed a cult of whiteness.

Diáz Political Techniques

Diaz had a clear concept of political reality. He always controlled what was going on. Ruled as a party leader and a constitutionalist, being careful not to offend any one section of public opinion. Did, however, take severe action against the endemic guerrilla warfare which was a result of the French Intervention. Had a political machine of the Liberal Party in each state . He was the head and cou1d all the government branches. The careers of other politicians depended upon staying in his good graces. Those who supported him reaped rich rewards. Díaz stifled political opposition. Bought off intellectuals. Got the regional bosses not to contest him for national power whereas he supported them in their areas.

Also had the basic instruments of physical force--the army and the police--under his control. The army he inherited was capable of accomplishing the mission of internal order, its principal reason for existence. to stay in power, he had to keep it loyal, which he did partly through his personal prestige and personal force. Perhaps more important, however, was his appointment as officers men he could control. He made if profitable to support him. Zone commanders were rotated to discourage the generals from building local support. He gave them full,salaries and special favors. Created a class of "generales de pijamas," so called because they could collect their salaries without ever dressing. The police force was actually under national control. Police are capable of doing many favors, including ignoring prostitution, gambling, and drug trafficking for a price. Moreover, police could be allowed to oppress their private enemies. He created the guardias rurales, a rural police force, which gained a formidable (though undeserved) reputation. The police could use the ley fuga (shot while trying to escape). Porfirio Díaz gave at least a minimum of order. Roads became safer.

When his first presidential term ended in 1880, his friend, General Manual González, to be elected to the presidency and while he went to Oaxaca to become governor and a cabinet minister. Díaz went to New York on a long visit.

González looked like a president. He had an imposing figures and a forked beard. His war record as a general was good. He rewarded his friends and was on good terms with others. He gained political support in his own right. He had the constitution amended to allow Díaz to be elected to another term. In 1883, diplomatic relations resumed with Great Britain. In 1884, the Central Railway was completed, connecting Mexico to the United States. President González recognized Mexican debts to Great Britain, which not popular in all quarters. Doing so was essential to establish good credit. There was a lot of economic development under González but he left the presidency under suspicion that he and his friends were very corrupt.

Díaz, to save the nation from the misrule of González (some said he also benefited from the corruption), he ran for and was elected president for the 1880-1884 term; he was reelected in 1884, 188, 1892, 1896,1900, 1906 (the term had been extended to six years), and 1910. Only revolution could remove him. The election were farces, of course. At first he used the Liberal Party as his instrument but eventually created the Liberal Union in its place. Both liberals and conservatives supported his regime. As time passed and he became more self-satisfied, he had to use more and more oppression to stay in power. One slogan of his rule was "little politics, much administration." Another was "pan o palo," bread or the stick..

Capitalists in the United States and western Europe sought investments to complement the industrial revolution which was taking place in their areas; Díaz and his advisors tapped into this stream of world capital. Mexico had undeveloped but its lack of order and cavalier attitudes towards paying its creditors had discouraged investment, both domestic and foreign. Díaz understood that Mexican credit had to be re-established, that it had to pay off its debts, develop a banking system, and collect taxes effectively. State tariffs had to be eliminated to encourage trade. The national budget was balanced in 1894. Mexico went onto the gold standard even though it was one of the biggest silver-producing countries in the world, thus causing deflation. Its currency became one of the most trustworthy in the world.

With these measures, money and foreigners flowed into the country. Money first bought great estates. Railroads and telephone and telegraph systems were built. Mining, using foreign technology and capital, boomed. Díaz had the age-old laws granting all subsoil rights to the state, repealed. Many of the mines were in the north and that region, particularly its city of Monterrey, grew rapidly. Mexico City and other large cities acquired such amenities as lights. By 1900, enough oil had been discovered to make the country one of the largest deposits in the world. By 1890, the economic advances were so obvious that the nation needed trained people to handle finances. Financial affairs had become much more complicated.

The working man and woman, some 95% of the population, did not share in the prosperity. In fact, the leadership looked down on its fellow countrymen, not just Indians, whom they believed incapable of modernizing, but other Mexicans as well. Mexico had always been a class-based society with the rich or well-born or both lording it over everyone else. Now, the disparities between the rich and everyone else became enormous. Leaders favored foreigners, a policy which gave rise to xenophobia. The average person had a lower standard of living in 1910 that he/she had had a century before.

Most Mexicans lived in the countryside and survived through agriculture; land ownership was where the Díaz regime hit them the hardest. The Ley Lerdo was applied against Indian villages. The murder of some of those who resisted was usually enough to force obedience. The rebellious Yaquis of the northwest were shipped to Yucatán to work, replacing Mayas who had been sold to Cuba. Hacendados were encouraged with low taxes and the backing of the government against the peasantry. the government gave away or sold public lands. The Porfiriato was very much allied with the hacendado class. The Díaz government aided hacendado in their displacing Indians (and others) from their lands. The hacendado was the legislator and judge, virtually, for all of the people on his land. Peasants stayed in debt because they had to buy from the hacienda store. By 1911, Mexico had nine hundred large landowners. Luis Terrazas, with his son-in-law Enrique Creel, owned acreage equivalent in size to Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts of the country of Costa Rica! Creel served in Díaz' cabinet. By contrast, nine million peasant owned no land at all, although some once had.

By 1888, the laws of the Reforma were not being enforced and Díaz, the former anticlerical, received support from the Church. His wife claimed to be a devout Christian, as did most Mexicans. Parochial schools began to flourish again. However, beginning in 1895, influenced by the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, some elements of the Church began talking of reform. In 1903, they gathered for a congress in Puebla to argue for labor unions, free elections, and better relations between workers and owners.Although there was an increase in the number of public schools, the number was very small.

Popular among the upper classes was the doctrine of positivism, the view that life should be approached logically. The cientifícos (scientists) were intellectuals and some public officials (such as finance minister Yves Limantour) who set the tone for the regime.

Díaz was seventy in 1900. People, especially ambitious men, began wondering how much longer he would last and when they would get a chance. Naturally, those who sought greater power began positioning themselves for the eventual departure of the old man. One was Yves Limantour; another was General Bernardo Reyes. Some of the ambitious were middle-aged, for Díaz tended to keep his key advisers in place for years. He was good at playing them off against each other or sent them abroad as diplomats. Reyes and Limantour were sent out of the country as diplomats after the publication of the famous 1908 interview of the dictator by James Creelman.

There was trouble in "Camelot," however.Strikes in Sonora; Yucatán, and Veracruz were suppressed with ferocity. There was a short depression following the 1907 New York slump. There was an increase in rural disorders. The Flores Magón brother, anarchists, were operating out of St. Louis; they bothered Diáz enough that he got US officials to persecute them. More serious as a threat was Francisco I. Madero, son of a wealthy hacendado.

Madero, born in 1873 into one of the wealthiest families in the republic, was not the sort of person one would have thought would cause trouble. He was the eldest of fifteen children, thus accustomed to leading others. He had studied in Mexico and in Baltimore, Berkeley and Paris. He was a teetotaler, vegetarian, spiritualist, and 19th century liberal. The family base was in Coahuila but they had holdings elsewhere as well. In 1908, after the Creelman interview had appeared in a US magazine, Madero published his The Presidential Succession in 1910. Díaz had intimated to Creelman that he might not run again in 1910, that Mexico had "matured" enough to have a free and fair election for president. Of course this was for US consumption. The old dictator was too egotistical to leave. Madero understood some of this. He praised Díaz and called for him to run an honest election for Vice President. The book became very popular and Madero changed it twice, becoming more critical. He founded the Anti-Reelectionist Party and started his presidential campaign. Madero was naive. Before the election, he was jailed. The electoral results claimed that Madero only got 196 votes whereas Diaz got a million. Madero was clearly robbed; his extended family and friends would account for more votes than that!

After the centenary celebration of the Grito de Dolores, the beginning of the independence movement on September 16th, Díaz was feeling very cocky. He had received adulation from around the world. To outsiders and to the Mexican elite, the nation was prosperous. He had capped the celebration by reopening the National University, thus demonstrating how civilized Mexico was. In October, he released political prisoners, including Madero.

Madero would sound the clarion call for a revolution against Díaz, serving as the precursor of the Mexican Revolution. By 1911, the old dictator sailed to exile in Europe where he died in 1915.

The Díaz regime had lost touch, had become flabby. Many of the leading lights were becoming senile. The army suffered from complacency and corruption; it would prove to be an empty threat. Díaz himself had lost touch or interest or both. He called Limantour back from Europe to negotiate a deal with the rebels. Limantour met Madero's brother Gustavo in a New York hotel. the compromise was that Díaz would remain in office but the maderistas would gain. the politically astute realized that this was a confession of weakness, that Díaz could be had. Pancho Villa and Madero took Ciudad Juárez and Emiliano Zapata took the railroad center of Cuautla. Other rebel commanders were defeating the federales. People switched sides. The Mexico City garrison mutinied. Finally, Díaz sailed for Europe on May 11, 1911.

Success of the Díaz regime

The "successes" were what the world saw. Very few foreigners knew much about Mexico but liked what they saw.

  1. It created a peace, but at what cost and with what value?
  2. Finances were put under control. The budget was balanced by Limantour which enabled foreign credits and foreign investments.
  3. Foreign investments meant the acceleration of the building of the railroads. Building ports. Industrialization began. There was a greater development of commerce, especially upper-class commerce. Foreigners created two big commercial house, the Palacio de Hierro and the Puerto de Londres. Modern Mexican mining began. Large estates, some larger than US states, were created.
  4. New elements in the population arose such as new capitalists, científicos, industrial owners, managers, and proletarians.
  5. There were some worker organizations and some radical intellectuals of socialist or anarchist variety.

The Porfiriato was unsuccessful for it ended in violence and could not sustain itself. The Mexican suffered during the Porfiriatio and during its aftermath as well.