José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori (1830-1915) was a Mexican general, President, politician and dictator. He ruled Mexico with an iron fist for 35 years, from 1876 to 1911. His period of rule, referred to as the Porfiriato, was marked by great progress and modernization and the Mexican economy boomed. The benefits were felt by very few, however, as millions of peons labored in virtual slavery. He lost power in 1910-1911 after rigging an election against Francisco I. Madero, which brought about the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).
Early Military Career:
Porfirio Díaz was born a mestizo, or of mixed Indian-European heritage, in the state of Oaxaca in 1830. He was born into extreme poverty and never even reached complete literacy. He dabbled in law, but in 1855 he joined a band of liberal guerrillas who were fighting a resurgent Antonio López de Santa Anna. He soon found that the military was his true vocation and he stayed in the army, fighting against the French and in the civil wars that wracked Mexico in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. He found himself aligned with liberal politician and rising star Benito Juárez, although they were never personally friendly.
The Battle of Puebla:
On May 5, 1862, Mexican forces under General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated a much larger and better-equipped force of invading French outside the city of Puebla. This battle is commemorated every year by Mexicans on “Cinco de Mayo.” One of the key players in the battle was young general Porfirio Díaz, who led a cavalry unit. Although the Battle of Puebla only delayed the inevitable French march into Mexico City, it did make Díaz famous and cemented his reputation as one of the best military minds serving under Juarez.
Díaz and Juárez:
Díaz continued to fight for the liberal side during the brief rule of Maximilian of Austria (1864-1867) and was instrumental in reinstating Juarez as President. Their relationship was still cool, however, and Díaz ran against Juarez in 1871. When he lost, Díaz rebelled, and it took Juarez four months to put the insurrection down. Amnestied in 1872 after Juarez died suddenly, Díaz began plotting his return to power. With the support of the United States and the Catholic Church, he brought an army into Mexico City in 1876, removing President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada and seizing power in a dubious “election.”
Don Porfirio in Power:
Don Porfirio would remain in power until 1911. He served as President the entire time except for 1880-1884, when he ruled through his puppet Manuel González. After 1884, he dispensed with the farce of ruling through someone else and re-elected himself several times, occasionally needing his hand-picked Congress to amend the Constitution to allow him to do so. He stayed in power through deft manipulation of the powerful elements of Mexican society, giving each just enough of the pie to keep them happy. Only the poor were excluded entirely.
The Economy Under Díaz:
Díaz created an economic boom by allowing foreign investment to develop Mexico's vast resources. Money flowed in from the United States and Europe, and soon mines, plantations and factories were built and humming with production. The Americans and British invested heavily in mines and oil, the French had large textile factories and the Germans controlled the drug and hardware industries. Many Spanish came to Mexico to work as merchants and on the plantations, where they were despised by the poor laborers. The economy boomed and many miles of railway track were laid to connect all of the important cities and ports.
The Beginning of the End:
Cracks began appearing in the Porfiriato in the first years of the 20th century. The economy went into a recession and miners went on strike. Although no voices of dissent were tolerated in Mexico, exiles living abroad, primarily in the southern United States, began organizing newspapers, writing editorials against the powerful and crooked regime. Even many of Díaz' supporters were growing uneasy, because he had picked no heir to his throne, and they worried what would happen if he left or died suddenly.
Madero and the 1910 Election:
In 1910, Díaz announced that he would allow fair and free elections. Isolated from reality, he believed that he would win any fair contest. Francisco I. Madero, a writer and spiritualist from a wealthy family, decided to run against Díaz. Madero didn't really have any great, visionary ideas for Mexico, he just naively felt that the time had come for Díaz to step aside, and he was as good as anyone to take his place. Díaz had Madero arrested and stole the election when it became apparent that Madero would win. Madero, freed, fled to the United States and declared himself the winner and called for armed revolution.
The Revolution Breaks Out:
Many heeded Madero's call. In Morelos, Emiliano Zapata had been fighting the powerful landowners for a year or so already and quickly backed Madero. In the north, bandit leaders-turned-warlords Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco took to the field with their powerful armies. The Mexican army had decent officers, as Díaz had paid them well, but the foot soldiers were underpaid, sickly and poorly trained. Villa and Orozco routed the federals on several occasions, growing ever closer to Mexico City with Madero in tow. In May of 1911, Díaz knew that he had been defeated and was allowed to go into exile.
Legacy of Porfirio Diaz:
Porfirio Díaz left a mixed legacy in his homeland. His influence is undeniable: with the possible exception of the dashing, brilliant madman Santa Anna no one man has been more important to the history of Mexico since independence.
In the positive side of the Díaz ledger must be his accomplishments in the areas of the economy, safety and stability. When he took over in 1876, Mexico was in ruins after years of disastrous civil and international wars. The treasury was empty, there were a mere 500 miles of train track in the whole nation and the country was essentially in the hands of a few powerful men who ruled sections of the nation like royalty. Díaz unified the country by paying off or crushing these regional warlords, encouraged foreign investment to restart the economy, built thousands of miles of train tracks and encouraged mining and other industries. His policies were wildly successful and the nation he left in 1911 was completely different from the one he inherited.
This success came at a high cost for Mexico's poor, however. Díaz did very little for the lower classes: he did not improve education, and health was only improved as a side effect of improved infrastructure primarily meant for business. Dissent was not tolerated and many of Mexico's leading thinkers were forced into exile. Wealthy friends of Díaz were given powerful positions in government and allowed to steal land from Indian villages without any fear of punishment. The poor despised Díaz with a passion, which exploded into the Mexican Revolution.
The Revolution, too, must be added to Díaz' balance sheet. It was his policies and mistakes which ignited it, even if his early exit from the fracas can excuse him from some of the later atrocities that took place.
Most modern Mexicans view Díaz more positively and tend to forget his shortcomings and see the Porfiriato as a time of prosperity and stability, albeit somewhat unenlightened. As the Mexican middle class has grown, it has forgotten the plight of the poor under Díaz. Most Mexicans today know the era only through the numerous telenovelas – Mexican soap operas – that use the dramatic time of the Porfiriato and Revolution as a backdrop for their characters.
Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.