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Díaz, Porfirio (1830-1915)

by Donald J. Mabry

The future dictator of Mexico, José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz (always called Porfirio Díaz), was born on or before September 15, 1830 in the city of Oaxaca, Oaxaca in modest circumstances. His parents, José de la Cruz Díaz and Patrona Mori de Díaz, operated a small inn while the father also worked as a veterinarian and blacksmith to supplement the family income. The Díaz family was mestizo, descended from both Mixtec Indians and Spaniards. Most Oaxacans were Mixtec or Zapotec. Few of the old Spanish elite remained and those who did had to share power with the mestizos. Mestizo such as Díaz represented the Mexican future, one in which mestizos would dominate the nation. Moreover, as a political actor, his hereditary ties to both Spanish and Indian culture allowed him to work with all Mexicans. In 1833, when his father died and his mother took full charge of the family of eight, the future looked bleak. Even though she and the children worked hard at running the inn and received some economic help from family and friends, they barely hung on to lower middle class status. When the inn finally failed, the children, including the young Porfirio, had to work even harder at whatever jobs they could find to make ends meet.

Patrona was determined that Porfirio would become a priest, but Porfirio preferred action to study and would eventually become a soldier-politician. During his primary school years, he learned carpentry and shoemaking outside the classroom to supplement the family income. In 1843, his mother sent him to the local Seminario Pontifical to study for the priesthood, but he was a mediocre and sometimes rebellious student. In 1846, the sixteen year old Porfirio joined the local militia, formed in response to the threat of war with the United States and took some courses (including military tactics) in the Institute of Science and Art. Although the militia never fought, Porfirio had found his vocation. He liked leading men into action and the idea of defending the nation against its enemies. Moreover, like the priesthood, the military was a principal avenue of advancement for men of Porfirio's class. In 1849, he left the seminary to study law; his disappointed mother gave him the money to buy his first law books. Local lawyers, including the Zapotec Indian, Benito Juárez, tutored him. Juárez was a Liberal Party leader who would become Mexico's most honored hero. Young Porfirio became a Liberal. In 1853, Porfirio passed his first exam in Civil and Canon Law but the political events of the day proved more exciting than the practice of law.

Much of nineteenth-century Mexican history consisted of epic struggles between the Liberal and Conservative Parties. Conservative Party members wanted independent Mexico to resemble colonial Mexico without monarchy and Spanish rule. Thus, they sought to preserve as much of the colonial past as possible. They believed in hierarchical, authoritarian rule from Mexico City by a privileged elite, supported by a state religion (the Roman Catholic Church) and military officers. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, fought to abolish special privilege (fuero) in order to create equality before the law and equality of opportunity. The Liberals stood for federalism (strong local power) against the Conservatives' centralism, for they wanted more popular participation in decision making. The more radical Liberals argued for the complete separation of Church and State while their moderate brethren advocated recognizing Roman Catholicism as the official Mexican religion while tolerating other Christian groups. Liberals founded public schools, such as the Institute of Science and Art in Oaxaca city, to break the educational monopoly of the church. Shortly after gaining power in 1833, the Liberal Party implemented its program by passing the Laws of '33. The Conservatives revolted, drove the Liberals out of power, and put Antonio Santa Anna, an erstwhile Liberal, into the presidency.

Santa Anna, president on eleven different occasions, dominated Mexico until he was exiled in 1855. When he centralized authority in Mexico City in 1836, he inadvertently prompted the successful Texas secession movement and his own removal from power. When the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, Santa Anna was brought back as president and military leader, but lost the war and the presidency once again. As he grew older, he became more dictatorial and vicious, killing or exiling his opponents at will. His Liberal opponents unsuccessfully fought back until he galvanized the opposition by selling part of Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) to the United States in 1853. By 1855, the Liberals fought their way back to power and Santa Anna slipped off into exile.

Porfirio gained fame and position as a courageous Liberal Party stalwart in Oaxaca state, becoming a local legend for his aid to the Liberal cause. In 1854, he scaled prison walls to aid a local Liberal leader and in December of that year publicly voted no in a plebescite rigged by Santa Anna. Díaz fled into hiding, becoming a guerrilla against the Santa Anna dictatorship. When the Liberals took Oaxaca in 1855, Díaz was rewarded by being named subprefect of the predominantly Indian Ixtlán district of the state. Although a minor post, Díaz used the opportunity to cultivate good relations with the inhabitants, who would later support him in his political and military careers. In December, 1856, he was promoted to captain in the state national guard.

When Juárez and the Liberals had once again instituted the Liberal program through decrees and the Constitution of 1857, the Conservatives revolted, touching off the civil war known as "The War of the Reform." Díaz led his troops in battle against the Conservatives, suffering wounds in August, 1857. As the war progressed, Díaz was promoted to a colonelcy in the Oaxaca national guard and, in 1860, to the same rank in the national army. Between 1857 and 1859, he also served as governor and military commander of the Tehuantepec district. The Liberals won the civil war by 1861 but the Conservatives induced Napoleon III of France to send troops to drive Juárez from power and to convert Mexico into a monarchy. Díaz temporarily stopped the French army advance on Mexico City at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, a feat which earned him promotion to general of brigade. The French, however, regrouped and soon took Mexico City. Backed by the French army, the Conservatives rigged a plebescite to ask Archduke Maximilian von Hapsburg of Austria to become emperor of Mexico.

Throughout this period of the French Intervention and Empire of Maximilian I, Juárez and his Liberals, the legitimate government, fought to retake the country. Díaz, given command of the Army of the East in October, 1863 and then governorship of Oaxaca state later that year, fought the Imperial army until captured by the French in February, 1865. He escaped from his Puebla prison and, within a year, had rebuilt his army, eventually taking Puebla city in April, 1867. On June 20th, Díaz' troops occupied Mexico City. Juárez, back in the presidential palace, barely acknowledged Diaz's contributions. Perhaps Juárez feared Díaz as a political rival; he certainly did not want to encourage military men, whom he considered responsible for many of Mexico's problem. In 1870, Díaz retired to his farm, La Noria, to spend time with his wife, Delfina Ortega y Reyes, and their three children, and to await the 1871 presidential election in which he intended to be a candidate.

Díaz first became president of Mexico through revolt, not electoral politics. Juárez decided to run for a fourth term, using governmental powers to insure his election over Díaz. Porfirio revolted, crying fraud, but lost. When Juárez died in July, 1872, and his vice president, Sabastián Lerdo de Tejada became president, Díaz quietly began organizing a coalition to use to win the 1876 presidential election or, if necessary, to overthrow the government. He promoted the idea of "sufragio efectivo, no reelección," (a fair vote count and no reelection to public office) to prevent the kind of continuism practiced by Juárez and likely to be practiced by Lerdo. Díaz called for respect for the constitution, claiming that Lerdo obeyed it only when convenient. Through pro-Díaz newspapers, the government was accused of malfeasance and corruption. Porfirio quietly strengthened his ties with his former comrades in arms, let the pro-Church faction know that he would not enforce the anticlerical provisions of the constitution, and reassured conservatives that a Díaz government would serve their interests. When Lerdo "won" the election of 1876, Díaz, issuing the Plan de Tuxtepec calling for obedience to the constitution and "effective suffrage, no reelection," overthrew the government and declared himself president on November 29, 1876.

Except for the 1880-84 term, when his childhood friend General Manuel González served as president, Díaz was president until his forced exile in May, 1911. Having argued against reelection in 1876, he dared not seek reelection in 1880; moreover, he had not fully consolidated his personal power. When he stepped down in 1880, he went back to Oaxaca and a short term as state governor. After his first wife died in 1880, he married an eighteen-year-old socialite, Carmen Romero Rubio, in 1881. She was the daughter of a member of Lerdo's cabinet, and the marriage allied him with the Lerdo faction in the Liberal party and with the social elite. When he won the presidency again in 1884, he was determined never to leave. He created excuses to stay in office, amending the constitution whenever necessary. In 1904, the seventy-four-year-old dictator had the presidential term extended to six years, but his politically ambitious rivals demanded that the post of vice presidency be created. Each hoped, of course, that, he would be chosen for the post and would become president when the old man died, as many thought he would before the term ended. Díaz, however, chose Ramón Corral, one of the most hated men in politics.

Díaz ruled by offering "pan or palo," bread or the club, and setting his rivals against one another. Those who supported him received "bread" in the form of bribes, public office, land grants, promotions, or pensions. Through his control of the Liberal Party organization in each state, he determined who would hold even the lowest office. His supporters received promotions and jobs for their friends and relatives in the growing national bureaucracy. To control military officers, he divided the nation into military zones and, with a few exceptions, rotated his generals through them to prevent them from building an independent power base. Others became "pajama generals," officers who received full pay for quietly living on their estates. By 1896, the army, greatly reduced in size since 1876, was led by men personally loyal to Díaz. His public works program rewarded numerous supporters and provided thousands of jobs. The government tolerated gambling, prostitution, smuggling, and other lucrative acts when conducted by its friends.

Those who did not obey him were hit with the club. Dissidents were assassinated or, if they were lucky, forced into exile. When a political supporter started acquiring too much power, he lost access to public money and had to compete against a rival sent by Díaz. The new rural police, rurales, used ruthless tactics not only to end banditry but also to enforce the dictator's will. The national army suppressed riots and rebellions and, when needed, supported the state political bosses appointed by Díaz. Physical attacks on reporters and newspaper plants soon ended freedom of the press. Although Díaz did not dare repeal the anticlerical provisions of the constitution or similar statutes, for doing so would rekindle the Church-State conflict, he did allow the church to regain much of its lost influence. Although part Indian, Díaz grew "whiter" during his dictatorship as he disparaged Indians, the vast majority of the Mexican population, and longed for European immigration. His anti-Indian attitudes encouraged supporters to sell rebellious Indians into slavery in Cuba or to kill them. In short, Díaz used the standard techniques of dictatorships.

Díaz also stayed in power because he successfully encouraged economic development. He created a solid banking system and an effective tax collection system. State tariffs, taxes on production, and the sales tax were abolished. He paid off Mexico's creditors and, in 1894, balanced the national budget for the first time in Mexican history. Mexico was the world's largest silver producer but he put the nation on the international gold standard. The Mexican peso became one of the world's soundest currencies. He revised laws to make the country attractive to investors. The constitution was amended to allow foreigners to own subsoil minerals, a right which had been in the hands of the crown and then the nation, thus opening mines and, later, oil fields to foreign ownership. Modifying the land laws of the Reform, he allowed surveyors to keep huge chunks of the national lands they surveyed. Through his control of the judiciary rights, he guaranteed that his friends would win law suits instigated by Indian communities trying to keep their land. By 1910, the nation had 900 large land owners and a landless rural population of nine million out of a total population of fifteen million. Many haciendas were huge; those owned by the Terrazas-Creel clan contained more acreage than the entire nation of Costa Rica.

Foreigners soon owned much of the nation. They initially bought landed estates but soon invested in commerce and industry. Railroad building began under Juárez and increased under González, but boomed during the Díaz years as the total mileage of tracks went from less than 400 miles in 1876 to over 12,000 in 1910. These foreign railroad companies laid track for export purposes, to carry Mexican minerals and goods abroad, not to create a national railroad network. Foreigners created telephone and telegraph companies, bought mines, started or took over factories, opened department stores, and, at the turn of the century, drilled for oil. Mexico City, the national capital, blossomed into one of the most beautiful cities in the world while Monterrey, with its steel mills and factories, became a major industrial city. Foreign domination of the national economic life became so pervasive and the practice of hiring unqualified foreigners before qualified Mexicans became so common that many Mexicans asserted that Mexico was the "mother of foreigners and the stepmother of Mexicans."

Most Mexicans suffered from the Díaz economic policies, but the dictator and his followers did not care. Díaz' intellectual elite, the científicos (loosely translated as scientists), believed in "the survival of the fittest." They argued that societies could only progress through ruthless competition among individuals and the application of "scientific" principles to government. They also believed that the Indian majority was incapable of rational thought, and, thus, inevitably would suffer as their "betters" won the competition for resources. They ignored the fact that Díaz was stacking the deck, using whatever means necessary to insure the outcome he wanted. Economic policy was neither fair nor rational. Mexico needed sound public roads to foster internal trade but Mexican roads, on which the average person depended, were no better than they were in 1810 even though Mexico exported asphalt. Industrial workers and miners, groups which enjoyed higher wages than peons, were usually forced to spend those wages in company stores, where they paid higher prices. If they protested or sought higher wages, Díaz sent in the army to break strikes. By 1910, the average Mexican was worse off economically than he or she had been in 1810!

Growing popular unrest contributed to the downfall of the dictatorship but dissatisfaction among the elite precipitated the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Díaz kept his friends in office year after year after year, denying ambitious men the possibility of holding public office. It was a "carro completo," a full car, and ambitious men reached middle age and beyond without any hope of gaining a seat unless someone died or Díaz left power, either voluntarily or by force. Few thought the old man could be forced out; he had always proven too crafty to allow that to occur and most people believed that any attempt to remove him would result in their death.

Díaz' political skills had declined however. He granted an interview in 1908 to James Creelman of Pearson's Magazine, a popular U.S. publication, and stated that he thought Mexico was now ready for democracy and he hoped to have serious opposition if he ran for the presidency in the 1910 election. Perhaps he thought few Mexicans would ever read these words or perhaps he was trying to encourage his rivals to declare their political intentions. Whatever his reasons, the interview encouraged potential candidates to announce their presidential candidacies. Díaz could handle those in his employ, such as his finance minister, José Limantour, and General Bernardo Reyes, governor of the northern state of Nuevo Leon; he sent them off on foreign missions.

Francisco I. Madero, son of one of the nation's wealthiest families, was a different story. Born and raised in the northern state of Coahuila, Madero had been sent to universities in France and the United States, where he had learned to admire political democracy. An idealist, Madero believed that Mexico, too, could be a democratic country if only it could rid itself of the scourge of electoral fraud and constant reelection. When he read the Creelman interview, he quickly the book The Presidential Succession in 1910, in which he praised Díaz and argued that an honest election for vice president be held. The book enjoyed wide popularity, and, in the two subsequent editions, Madero became more critical of Díaz, finally deciding that the nation needed an honest presidential election with himself as candidate. He ran as the candidate of the Anti-Reelection Party, demanding "sufragio efectivo, no reelección!"

Díaz controlled that election as well. Just before the voting, Díaz threw Madero into jail. The government announced that Díaz had received one million votes whereas Madero had only received 196. The Madero family had more members, friends, and servants than that! In October, after the nation had successfully celebrated the centennial of independence in September, 1910 and the departure of the many special foreign representatives who had come to praise Díaz as the man who had tamed the Mexican tiger, Díaz let Madero out of jail. Madero fled to the United States; issued his Plan de San Luis Potosí declaring himself the legitimate president and calling for a revolution to begin on November 20th.

The Mexican Revolution did not begin on November 20, 1910, when Madero returned to Mexico; it began at different times and in different places. Porfirian Mexico, despite its patina of progress, was rotten to the core. Ultimately, its stability depended upon the political skills of the dictator to outmaneuver and outflank opponents, but the eighty-year-old Díaz had lost his touch. He failed to recognize that the Madero candidacy signaled the rebellion of the Porfirian elite. Isolated among cronies and lackeys, he little understood the deep resentments of peasants, workers, nationalists, anticlericals, and democrats. Nor did he correctly gauge the ambitions of his subordinates and generals.

In late 1910 and early 1911, various men--such as Emiliano Zapata in Morelos, Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa in Chihuahua--raised the standard of revolt. The flabby national army could not suppress the rebellions occurring across the nation. In desperation he tried to negotiate with the Madero family, promising reform if he could stay in office. This confession of weakness sealed his fate. Many supporters became opponents. Recognizing the inevitable, Díaz resigned on May 25, 1911 and sailed to Europe. Legend has it that his parting words were that "Madero has unleashed the tiger; let's see if he can tame it." He died in Paris on July 2, 1915. No one in Mexico built monuments to him then or since. He is remembered as one of the great villains of Mexican history.


David Hannay, Díaz. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1917. [pp. 1-5]

Carleton Beals, Porfirio Diaz, Dictator of Mexico. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1932. [pp. 26, 34-49]

Michael Meyer and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. [pp. 414, 433-434, 437]

Further Reading:

Daniel Cosío Villegas, The United States Versus Porfirio Díaz. Translated by Nettie Lee Benson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.

Laurens Ballard Perry, Juárez and Díaz: Machine Politics in Mexico. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution. 2 vols. London: Cambridge University Press, 1986.