Democrat to autocrat: The transformation of Porfirio Diaz

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

It is an ancient principle of politics that a revolution devours its children. Danton and Robespierre began as rebel leaders against France’s ancien régime but Robespierre ended by cutting off Danton’s head — and then being separated from his own. Kerensky led the bourgeois revolution that overthrew the Tsar — only to be replaced by a more radical revolution headed by Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. Lenin died and then Stalin had Trotsky murdered and all his followers purged in the sensational show trials of the 1930s.

This is the story of a “child” who devoured his revolution — one who began as an activist against reaction and privilege and ended as a longtime dictator and staunch defender of the very forces he had once opposed. As absolute ruler of Mexico for 35 years, Porfirio Díaz served as president from 1876-80 and from 1884-1911. In the four year interim, the post of president was held by a Diaz puppet named Manuel González.

Like Benito Juárez, his onetime ally and later enemy, Díaz was an Indian from Oaxaca. Born in 1830, he was the son of José de la Cruz Díaz and Petrona Mori. His father died when he was three and the young boy did odd jobs to help support his mother. He received his early education at the same seminary that Juárez attended and then matriculated at the Institute of Science and Art in Oaxaca. When the U.S.-Mexican War broke out, Díaz was studying law. He enlisted in Mexico’s National Guard but the war ended before he saw any action.

In March 1854 a group of dissidents met in Ayutla, Guerrero, to plot the downfall of the flamboyant and corrupt dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. The conspirators included Ignacio Comonfort, an Acapulco customs official with liberal views, and General Juan Alvarez, at whose hacienda the meeting took place. Alvarez was angry because Santa Anna had arbitrarily removed a number of state officials who were his friends. There they launched the Plan de Ayutla, a manifesto calling for the ouster of Santa Anna.

News of the Plan spread throughout Mexico and soon the country was in open revolt. Juárez and Díaz, who had been exiled by Santa Anna, returned to Mexico and enthusiastically joined in the insurrection. Santa Anna tried his usual tactic of trying to buy off his enemies but this time he was facing a group of idealistic liberals who were impervious to bribes. Santa Anna fled the country in August 1855 and Alvarez took over as provisional president. Juárez became minister of justice and Díaz, only twenty-five, was named subprefect of the town of Ixtlán in Nayarit.

A new constitution adopted on February 5, 1857, contained provisions restricting the power of the Church. These infuriated clericals and conservatives and thus began the bloody Reform War of 1858-61, so named because of the “Reform Laws” that were so obnoxious to fervent Catholics.

During both the Reform War and the 1864-67 war against Maximilian and the French intervention, Díaz distinguished himself as a strong right arm of the liberal cause. He was wounded twice, escaped capture three times, and between 1864-67 led forces that inflicted nine defeats on the imperialists. He also gained a reputation for honesty, returning to the government a 87,232 peso surplus that had not been spent during the campaign against Maximilian. By the end of the two wars he was a general and a household name throughout Mexico.

Díaz and Juárez had been staunch allies during the two bloody periods of conflict. The incident that estranged them took place on July 15, 1867, when Juárez was making his triumphal entry into Mexico City. In a brilliant uniform and mounted on a white horse, General Díaz rode out to meet his old friend and mentor. But Juárez just nodded curtly and signalled for his coachman to drive on.

The snub wasn’t so much personal as an expression of principle. Juárez was anti-militaristic and after the defeat of Maximilian he dismissed two-thirds of the army. Díaz resigned his commission in February 1868 and retired to La Noria, a hacienda in Oaxaca that his grateful state had awarded to him on December 27, 1867.

Juárez ran for reelection in 1871 and triumphed in a narrow three-way race against Díaz and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Díaz had also made an unsuccessful run against Juárez in 1867. After losing in 1871 he issued a manifesto called the Plan de La Noria, named after his estate. Claiming that the election was fraudulent, it called for the overthrow of Juárez. Particularly ironic, in view of Díaz’s later career, was the provision in the manifesto that Juárez should be removed because he was trying to perpetuate himself in office by running for another term. It is also significant that Díaz was revolting against Juárez as a liberal populist rather than as a general attempting to stage a putsch.

The revolt failed and Díaz had to go into hiding. On July 16, 1872, Juárez died of a heart attack. Under the constitutional process, he was succeeded by Lerdo de Tejada, chief justice of the supreme court. Though Lerdo was a liberal and anticlerical, he was disliked in many quarters because he never flinched from using the power of the state to enforce his goals. In addition, it was widely believed that he had granted excessive concessions to U.S. railway interests. In January 1876, Díaz again went into revolt. This time his proclamation was called the Plan de Tuxtepec. As with Juárez, he portrayed himself as a liberal reformer rather than as an incipient military dictator. The Plan called for more democracy at the municipal level and once more attacked the principle of reelection. After initial reverses, the rebels prevailed and Díaz entered the capital on November 21. The porfiriato — Díaz’s 35-year stranglehold on Mexico — had begun.

Díaz had come to power as a champion of liberal principles — more municipal democracy, no reelection, etc. Once he assumed the presidency, it soon became clear that his main concerns were internal stability and foreign investment. To be fair, a law and order program was desperately needed in the country. Two bloody wars had taken their toll and banditry was pandemic. This unstable situation was scaring away foreign business and Díaz was anxious to create a climate of confidence for investors. He addressed the problem of internal security with a simple solution: by co-opting the most notorious bandits and putting them into the dreaded Rurales (“Rural Police”), a paramilitary force that was far better trained and paid than the unwilling conscripts dragooned into the army. The bandit problem disappeared overnight and, as time went by, the Rurales served as an effective force against peasant revolts.

Having brutally achieved domestic tranquility, Díaz next opened the country up to foreign capital, both U.S. and European. William Randolph Hearst acquired vast tracts of cattle country, the Guggenheim-controlled American Smelting and Refining Company set up ore smelters, and such big oil companies as William Doheny’s Mexican Petroleum Company and the Waters Pierce Company, with links to Standard Oil, dominated in the petroleum producing regions of the Gulf Coast. So eager was Díaz to attract foreign capital that he adopted the odious policy of paying foreign employees more than Mexicans for the same work. This was the main reason for the bloody strike, ruthlessly suppressed, at the Cananea Mining Company in Sonora. Díaz also cleverly played one side against the other, encouraging British and European capital as a counterbalance to its U.S. counterpart.

If you go by one set of statistics, the porfiriato was a howling success. Kilometers of railroad track increased from virtually zero to 14,000, silver production from 607,037 kilograms in 1877-78 to 1,816,605 in 1900, copper from 6,483 tons in 1891-92 to 52,116 in 1910-11 and henequen (sisal) from 11,283 tons in 1877 to 128,849 in 1910.

But here’s another set of porfiriato statistics. In 1893 infant mortality (death before the age of one) was 323 per thousand in Mexico City as opposed to London’s 114 and Boston’s 120. In 1895 life expectancy was 30 years and the 1910 census classified 50 percent of Mexican houses as unfit for human habitation. A 1900 survey in Mexico City showed that 15,000 families (16 percent of the population) were homeless. Wealth was being created but it certainly wasn’t trickling down.

Keeping his promise not seek reelection, Díaz didn’t run for president in 1880. As his successor he handpicked Manuel González, considered the most corrupt and incompetent of his inner circle. Gonález, living up to his reputation, gave Mexico such a wretched administration that the way was instantly paved for don Porfirio’s return to power. After that, all talk of “no reelection” died — until Francisco Madero raised his standard in 1910.

What toppled Diaz in the end was not a popular revolution but a quarrel between two ruling elites over whom Diaz had for a long time exercised a successful policy of divide and conquer. One was made up of a circle of European-educated intellectuals in Mexico City, known as científicos because they believed in the “scientific” positivist doctrines of Auguste Comte. The other comprised a provincial coalition of landowners, businessmen and generals who believed that the científicos, with their European orientation, were excessively subservient to foreign capitalists at the expense of Mexican entrepreneurs. The provincial power structure was strengthened when it managed to attract a considerable portion of the middle class to the anti-Diaz cause, small businessmen and professionals who had been hurt by the 1907 panic.

When the aging Diaz, who celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1910, came increasingly under the influence of the científicos, the provincial leaders began to balk. Organizing a group they called the Democratic party, they urged Diaz to accept General Bernardo Reyes, governor of Nuevo León, as his vice presidential candidate in 1910. Diaz refused and sent Reyes on a military mission to Europe to get rid of him. Then he nominated a highly unpopular científico, Ramón Corral, to be his running mate.

This is what set the stage for the Madero revolution of 1910. Madero came from one of Mexico’s richest families — a family in the northern state of Coahuila that typified the provincial elite that Diaz managed to alienate late in his career. Madero believed in honest government but he was no social or economic radical. Though the revolution attracted such populist rebels as Pancho VillaEmiliano Zapata and Pascual Orozco, only Villa remained loyal to Madero. Zapata broke off from this upper middle-class rebellion to the left because he thought Madero was dragging his feet on land reform. Orozco broke off from the right — selling out to the Terrazas-Creel family of Chihuahua cattle barons who were completely identified with the científico faction.

Díaz would probably never have fallen if he had continued to control both elites that kept him in power so long. By favoring one over the other, he sealed his doom.


Published or Updated on: October 1, 1997 by Jim Tuck © 1997


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