José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz

José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915) was a Mexican general and political leader. During his 34-year, virtually unchallenged rule of Mexico the economy grew and the country remained at peace despite its anachronistic social system.

Latin American countries in the 19th century remained chained to a colonial past with few exceptions. Mexico, one of the Western Hemisphere's most poorly governed states, had suffered more than most. After half a century of independence its economy lay ruined, its people were exhausted by civil war, and over half its territory had been lost to the United States. The autocratic government of Porfirio Díaz sought to bring order out of this chaos and to make Mexico into a modern industrialized state. A charismatic and capable leader, he almost succeeded in this protean task, yet finally failed because he gave economic development far too high a priority over social justice.

Porfirio Díaz was born in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca into a middle-class urban family of Spanish-Indian ancestry. His father, a moderately well-to-do veterinarian and innkeeper, died when Porfirio was only 3 years old. Though as a child he learned carpentry and shoemaking to help support his family, his mother sent him to study in a seminary in hope of his attaining the priesthood. But Díaz did not want to enter the clergy; he left the school and entered the Institute of Arts and Sciences in the city of Oaxaca, where he studied law under Benito Juárez. Díaz's legal training left him a convinced liberal determined to break the stranglehold that the professional army, the Church, and large landholders held over contemporary Mexico.

Advertisement

Military Career

In 1846 Díaz had enlisted in the national guard to combat the North American invaders, but he did not participate in the fighting. He later attributed his anticlericalism to his witnessing priests distributing tracts favoring the foreign invasion. In the 1850s he served as a guerrilla officer against the conservative clerical forces seeking to prevent liberal reforms. In 1861 the victorious liberals appointed him a brigadier general.

The conservative defeat was rapidly followed by the French intervention, and Díaz again fought but this time to keep the Austrian Archduke Maximilian off the throne of Mexico. In 1862 he participated in the successful Mexican defense of Puebla but was later captured when the city surrendered. He escaped, raised another liberal army, and laid siege to the city of Oaxaca. Again he was captured only to escape once more. By 1865 he had established a reputation as a brilliant guerrilla fighter and as a man able to overcome great odds despite adversity. Juárez, the liberal president, appointed Díaz commander of his eastern forces. Díaz governed eight states and commanded some 20,000 troops. In June 1867 Díaz took the city of Mexico from the conservatives, who had been abandoned by the French. He ruled the city as governor until July, when he presented it to Juárez, who welcomed him coldly. Díaz also handed over the eastern army's large treasury to the national government. At this time he was one of Mexico's most famous men and a threat to the determined Juárez, who believed himself the only one capable of governing Mexico.

Politician and Rebel

In 1867 Díaz ran against Juárez for the presidency but was heavily defeated. In 1868 he retired from the army to his native state of Oaxaca, where the grateful citizens had given him a large farm, La Noria. Hoping to increase his prestige by a short retirement, Díaz devoted himself to the raising of sugarcane. In 1871 he again opposed Juárez for the presidency in an election marked by much bitterness over Juárez's decision to seek a fourth term. The election ended in a tie between Díaz, Juárez, and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, and the Mexican Congress made Juárez president and Lerdo vice president.

The disappointed Díaz retired to Oaxaca, where he staged a revolt whose program promised effective suffrage and no reelection. Juárez acted quickly by sending troops to Oaxaca to crush the rebellion, which cost Felix Díaz, Porfirio's brother, his life. Porfirio fled to the coastal state of Nayarit, but Juárez's victory was soon followed by his death in 1872, bringing Lerdo the presidency. Díaz accepted a general amnesty and opened a furniture factory in Veracruz, while he prepared for another try at the presidency. In 1876, after Lerdo announced plans to succeed himself, Díaz again revolted. Lerdo's regime, plagued by popular apathy and a querulous military, soon collapsed and Lerdo fled into exile. Díaz then ran unopposed and was elected to fill Lerdo's unexpired term.

Advertisement

Ruler of Mexico

Díaz's 34-year rule is known as the Porfiriato; it was a period of relative peace and economic growth. During his first term Díaz began to reestablish the federal government's power over the diverse Mexican states. He enlarged and gave great power to a constabulary, the Rurales. They destroyed many of the bandit gangs which had proliferated during the civil wars and later crushed all political opposition to Díaz's rule. He also formed a compromise with the Catholic Church, by which the federal government would not harass the Church if the latter would not interfere in Mexican politics.

In 1880 Díaz left the presidency to Gen. Manuel González, a longtime supporter and friend. Díaz became governor of Oaxaca and watched while González ran the country into bankruptcy. Friends of the government made huge fortunes in public-land speculation, and foreign companies bought up huge tracts of Mexican land. The government reversed the old Spanish mining laws and allowed foreigners to purchase subsoil rights, or ownership of all oils and metals contained in the ground. The mining industry entered a boom period in which Mexico produced more gold and silver in 20 years than it had in the previous 4 centuries. Díaz, a widower, meanwhile had contracted his second marriage, to Carmen Romero Rubio, the daughter of a rich supporter of Lerdo. This marriage, sometimes called the "aristocratization of Porfirio Díaz," marked the rough mestizo general's entrance into the best Creole society. Carmen, a devout Catholic, not only made Díaz socially respectable but also helped form a tacit alliance between the government and the Mexican Catholic Church.

In 1884 Díaz abandoned his "no reelection" policy and again assumed the Mexican presidency. Continually reelected until his violent overthrow, Díaz was then free to pursue further the policies begun in 1876. Political peace was maintained through the Rurales and the policy known as "bread or club." Outstanding opponents were given government jobs or rich concessions; those who refused such bribes faced death, exile, or prison. Political power lay with Díaz, his old military cronies, and a small group of wealthy Creoles, known as the Científicos.

Advertisement

Economic Progress

The Científicos, most prominent in the 1890s, cleverly adopted the positivism of the French philosopher Auguste Comte as a justification for their increasing monopoly over the nation's wealth. Defining their program as one of "freedom, order, and progress," they tried to establish a religion of science based on the cold indexes of Mexico's expanding economy. The Científicos saw Mexico's future best served by massive white European immigration, which would relegate other groups to a permanently inferior role. The army launched campaigns against the Yaquí tribes in the north and the Mayas in the south, while the government press defined the indigenous people as a "national burden."

In 1893 the prominent Científico José Ives Limantour became minister of finance, and Mexico became one of Latin America's most prosperous nations. By cutting the military budget, the astute banker gave Mexico its first budgetary surplus in years; railroad trackage increased to 16,000 miles as foreign trade quadrupled over the 1870 level. The new transportation system allowed domestic industries such as beer, pulque, and textile mills to develop along railroad lines. In 1903 Mexico built its first steel mill in Monterrey. By 1910 Mexico was producing some 800 million barrels of oil per year. Limantour also abolished the sales tax and put Mexico on the gold standard.

Tides of Discontent

For most of rural Mexico the Porfiriato vaunted "order and progress" had meant economic and social disaster. In 1910 most rural workers earned about the same wage that they had earned in 1810. At the same time the cost of living had increased alarmingly. A rising population and a decreasing productivity of land resulted in many Mexican peasants' existing beneath subsistence level, while the fortunes of the Porfirian aristocracy grew yearly. Only a few peasants were able to find jobs on the railroads or in the growing industries, and many migrated to the United States seeking employment. Despite many promises illiteracy stood at about 87 percent.

The underdevelopment of rural Mexico was heightened by the government's actions. Laws requiring clear land title, surveying, and the dissolution of communal holdings led to the creation of huge estates at the expense of smallholders. The government sold off public lands to foreigners and cronies at bargain prices. Only the large estates could get improvement loans from the banking system. The government's policy of creating large efficient estates to produce export crops caused growing concern among those who held small ranches and farms. Later, those rural middle classes were to compose the backbone of the revolutionary forces. From 84 to 95 percent of the rural families had no land at all, while wealthy families often had estates running into millions of acres. The Terrazas family had 13.5 million acres in Chihuahua, while the Escandón estate in Hidalgo stretched for 90 miles.

Advertisement

The Revolution

In 1910 the Porfirian elite prepared to celebrate a century of Mexican independence. Confident after 34 years of peaceful rule, they were unaware that their carefully contrived system stood on the verge of collapse. The young were impatient with foreign economic control, the destruction of the indigenous peoples, and the hoarding of political power by the Porfirian elite. The ranchers of the north and the communities of the south, still independent and armed, feared that they would become rapidly submerged into large haciendas, and labor in mining and textiles was becoming restive.

In 1907 Díaz made a critical political error. The aging president told James Creelman, a North American journalist, that Mexico was ready for democracy and that he was about to retire. The interview, published in English and intended for foreign consumption, soon reached Mexico. Opposition parties began to form throughout the nation as both the ambitious and the sincerely critical sought to find a form of government better able to reconcile development and social justice. After some confusion most opposition coalesced around Francisco Madero, the wealthy scion of a prominent Mexican family from the northern state of Coahuila.

Too late Díaz tried to correct his error. In 1910 he reelected himself and jailed Madero. The latter, now a national hero, escaped and called for revolution. As the country rose, the weak army collapsed. Díaz, deserted by many of his followers and without effective armed forces, resigned office on May 25, 1911. He fled to France, where he died in relative poverty on July 2, 1915.

Advertisement

Further Reading on José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz

There is very little written in English on Díaz. The best biography is probably Carleton Beals, Porfirio Díaz: Dictator of Mexico (1932). Useful information may also be found in John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (1911; 4th ed. 1914); Henry Bamford Parkes, A History of Mexico (1938; 3d ed. 1960); Daniel Cosío Villegas, The United States versus Porfirio Díaz (1956; trans. 1963); and James D. Cockcroft, Intellectual Precursors of the Mexican Revolution (1969). An excellent popular history of the revolution that began with the overthrow of Díaz is Ronald Atkin, Revolution! Mexico, 1910-1920 (1970).