The purpose of this research is to examine the career and life of Porfirio Diaz, the political leader of Mexico between the late 1870s and 1911. Diaz, whose period of rule spanned the time between the Juarez Wars and the Villa-Zapata Revolt, helped to define the future of Mexico in many ways. Some historians view him as an evil, brutal dictator, while others see him as a hard-headed but highly productive founder of a modern nation. One fact is certain: Very few of his contemporaries and compatriots regarded him lightly. It was virtually impossible to be indifferent about a regime as extensive and long-lasting as that of Porfirio Diaz.
One critical account of Diaz divides his life into four parts. The first is from birth to age 24, when he joined the army to fight the ruling dictator, Antonio Lopex de Santa Anna, and his regime in the 1850s. The second period involves his important position as an officer in the army that defeated Emperor Maximilian of Mexico in 1867. The third period covers the years between 1867–when Diaz was 37–and 1876, ending with his rise to power through force. The final and longest division is the period of his power, beginning in 1876 and ending in 1911. This research will focus primarily on this fourth period of his life.
Diaz has always been difficult to describe as a liberal, a conservative, a reactionary or anything else since his politics were often dictated by the needs of the moment and his personal ambition. As a supporter of the rebels against Santa Anna and of Juarez against Maximilian, he is commonly regarded as having been on the more liberal side. Some accounts say that he served the liberal cause bravely, and all accounts say that he served it well. He did not, however, serve it well enough to become more popular that Benito Juarez. In the elections of 1867 and 1871, Diaz was badly beaten by Juarez at the ballot boxes. After Juarez’ death, Diaz ran for president in 1872 against the more liberal Lerdo de Tejada and was again very badly beaten. In this latter election, he got 90 percent fewer votes than the winner, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that he was so well-known to the voters. In the interim, Diaz–who has helped in throwing the reactionary and foreign regime of Maximilian out of the country–sought to do the same to the moderate and native regimes of Juarez and Lerdo:
From 1867 and for more than nine years, General Diaz plotted, conspired against, and resisted the legal and constitutional Government of Mexico under President Juarez and President Lerdo.
In 1876, Diaz finally led a successful rebellion, having failed only shortly before and been forced to leave the country. Raising a force of his old Indian soldiers from the previous decade, he first marched on his home city of Oaxaca, and, when that surrendered to him, he marched on the capitol itself. In the capitol, Lerdo was re-elected by the Congress, but it soon became clear that the election of 1876 was going to be decided on the battlefield. Diaz proved himself far better at this form of electioneering. Facing a “Lerdista” army larger than his under the command of General Manuel R. Alatorre, Diaz won a stunning victory at Teoac in which he played an important role: “In the battle of Teoac, Alatorre’s troops fought stubbornly until they were demoralized by a terrific charge led by Diaz in person.” This was the decisive battle of the war, although several more had to be fought before the victory was assured. The Diaz presidency thus began on the battlefield:
Being victorious throughout the republic, the general provided for a constitutional government by ordering a general election, and in May 1877, the new Congress canvassed the votes and declared that Diaz had been elected president.
Diaz remained president of Mexico until 1911, except for the years 1880-1884, when a puppet ruled in his place. Forty-six at the time of his accession, having spent more than two decades in continuous military-political battle, he was in many respects the person best prepared to run the nation. He did not respect democracy expect in the most general and formal of terms. In theory, he was the elected president of Mexico, having been elected on seven different occasions. In practice, however, his election was always assured even before the votes were cast. Diaz was a classic example of the 19th-century “man-on-horseback.” Some thought he was good for Mexico, and some thought he was a disaster. But all agreed that he was a dictator who strengthened the centralized power of the national regime. One historian, writing of the situation that existed at the very end of the Diaz regime, stated,
Diaz had given his country order at the expense of every sort of liberty. The national domain of 135 million acres was cut up into latifundia, or used to augment the already swollen estates of fewer than a thousand great landowners, the haciendados.
It was on the support of such classes that the Diaz regime rested. At the time of Diaz’ accession to power, the nation was war-weary and Diaz had the best army. Through control of the national treasury and the exploitation of resources, Diaz was able to maintain this military status quo. Until the armies of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, Ezequiel Almanza Carranza and Miguel Angel Zapata began to form during the last years of his regime, Diaz was supreme in the Mexican cities and countryside. Part of the reason for this was an extensive program of political repression against anyone who dared to mistake the pretense of democracy for the real thing: “The Mexican government was more autocratic than Czarist Russia, the ruling class more concentrated and powerful, the condition of the people worse.”
Since the army was the basis for the success of his regime, Diaz made great efforts to reform it. It is reported that he succeeded only partially. The privileges of the great families and the vast poverty of the conscript privates (who deserted whenever they saw a chance of doing so successfully) almost guaranteed an inadequate army, at least insofar as anything other than putting down peasant revolts was concerned. The vital core of “Porfirian” officers, trained in the years after 1876, was judged to have been very impractical, but it was sandwiched between incompetence from above and surliness in the ranks below. The result was military inefficiency, even though the army kept Diaz in power.
This rule of “take from the poor and give to the rich” was achieved in a variety of ways. First, Diaz made no attempt to fight the Catholic Church and left it in charge of educating the poor people in Mexico, who were thus taught from childhood that obedience to the law and obedience to God were very similar. In addition, large concessions were made to foreign mining interests and other corporations. These concessions meant that the natural resources of all Mexican people were being sold to foreigners, with the profits going to a small group of military men and landowners who supported Diaz. The seizure of the national wealth did not stop here. The Yaqui Indians of the North, along with much of the rest of Mexico’s peasant population, was reduced to near slavery:
Diaz expropriated and allotted to his favorites the communal lands of the Indian villages, and the newcomers exacted free labor from landless peons by keeping them in perpetual debt for food and supplies.
As stated in the above quotation, this method of enslavement was not vastly different from that instituted in the Reconstruction South for the enslavement of blacks, except that in Diaz’ Mexico it was a majority being enslaved by a minority. Obviously, this could only have occurred through even greater repression than that instituted in the South by the Ku Klux Klan. In some respects, the Yaqui and other groups benefitted from the regime’s desire to further control the country. One report states that the Diaz regime encouraged what for the time was an impressive degree of education for peasants, especially Indian peasants, as a means of integrating them into Mexican society. This was not, however, a deliberate pro-Indian move. Like so much else in the Mexican nation of that era, it was a course of action primarily designed to improve the status and strength of the Diaz regime.
This is not to say the Diaz regime was a failure, since by its own standards what was good for the wealthy was good for all Mexico. A number of philosophical and practical arguments have supported this political idea in other countries, and there is no question that Diaz was popular with Mexico’s nearby neighbors, such as the United States, which benefitted from the stability that he provided in the border areas. As the American Secretary of the Interior, C.N. Bliss, stated toward the middle of Diaz’ domination of Mexico,
The remarkable work of President Porfirio Diaz in the establishment of modern and efficient government in the Republic of Mexico is well-known and appreciated in the United States and throughout the world.
Diaz’ capacity for retaining control over the nation, which had never known more than a few years’ peace in the half century between the overthrow of the last Spanish rulers and the rise of Diaz, was remarkable. In the three and one-half decades of his rule, the nation grew in many ways that would have been impossible if the strife had continued. Since the overthrow of Diaz was followed by a decade of open civil war and another decade of coups, counter-coups and assassinations, it is clear that the Diaz regime maintained extraordinary control over the nation. However, then as now, there were many who questioned the value of peace over repression. The Indians and other peasants of Mexico were ground underfoot by the military and economic policies of Diaz. They did not seriously rise again until the final years of Diaz’ life.
Diaz did not favor one-man rule. Even with autocratic powers, the job of running the nation required the efforts of many people. However, Diaz kept careful control over those to whom he delegated authority. He used a clearly Machiavellian approach to power:
How did Diaz govern? His cabinet, in a constructive sense, was reduced to impotence, ever the battleground of petty ambitions. Its members might seek personal enrichment . . . or (serve) as false symbols of liberalism . . . but constant rivalry, largely fomented by Porfirio himself, made the only coordination that imposed by his paternal will.
The pretense of democratic institutions was always maintained under Diaz, but it was never much more than a pretense. The officials who held power ostensibly did so through the will of the people, but very few people could vote and many officials remained in power long after their terms expired, through no authority other than that of Diaz:
At no time during Porfirio’s rule were the Chamber and Senate formed by popular vote, though at the beginning of his 1876-1880 and 1884-8 terms, a small independent bloc survived. But by the end of Diaz’ first administration, Congress had been well steamrollered.
Thus, Diaz ruled the government and the government ruled the nation. He had, among the minority of the population that benefitted so much from his rule, many ardent and devoted supporters who believed that he was one of the best things that ever happened to the nation. He also had many detractors, although prior to 1911 very few of them were able to speak openly without fear of imprisonment. Even those from the privileged minority who criticized him–such as Francisco Madero–were subject to deportation. If the Machiavellian concept of The Prince is philosophically accepted (as it is by a small percentage of the world’s philosophers), then it can be said that Diaz was an effective president. However, this syllogism is based on a very important “if.”
The Diaz regime was followed by another generation of warfare, begun in 1910 by small guerilla groups under the command of soon-to-be-famous men like Zapata and Villa. Others, who joined in the revolution soon afterwards, were middle class or members of the upper classes who could see which way the wind was blowing. Diaz retired with his wealth relatively intact and left Mexico to spend a few comfortable years in retirement. He was, for some time, the last ruler of Mexico to be able to make this claim.
The Diaz regime was therefore a period of repressed peacefulness in which the class warfare that had and would again tear apart the Mexican nation was kept in check by the rule of the smallest numerical class–the aristocracy. However, the power of the aristocracy was based on its loyalty to Diaz. Porfirio was anything but a puppet. Most of the powerful groups in the nation were powerful because of his friendship, and none is on record as ever having denied or forgotten this. For those who were already poor when he took power, the result was near slavery. This included most of the nation’s Indian population and a good many of the half-caste “mestizos.” After Diaz, these forces were to rise in one of the most violent and bitter civil wars the world has ever seen. This warfare marks the natural epilogue of the Diaz regime.