Díaz, Porfirio (1830–1915)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Díaz, Porfirio (1830–1915)

Porfirio Díaz (b. 15 September 1830; d. 2 July 1915), president of Mexico (1876–1880 and 1884–1911). In recognition of his prominence in Mexican politics and government, the period from 1876 to 1911 is called the Porfiriato. Much of the literature written about Díaz during his presidency reflects the sycophantic adulation of his biographers, while that dating from the Revolution of 1910 has tended to castigate him as a repressive dictator. His life, of course, was more complicated.

Porfirio Díaz was born in the city of Oaxaca, the sixth child of a modest innkeeper and his wife. His father, José de la Cruz Díaz, died before Porfirio reached the age of three. His mother, Petrona Mori, was unable to keep the business going. As soon as he was old enough, Porfirio was sent to work for a carpenter, but he found time for his primary studies. At the age of fifteen, he began attending the seminary, apparently with the aid of his godfather, the canon and later bishop of Oaxaca, José Agustín Domínguez. Porfirio interrupted his studies to enlist in the national guard during the war of 1846–1847 with the United States but saw no fighting. After graduating in 1849, Díaz refused to be ordained and insisted on studying law at the Institute of Sciences and Arts, passing his first examination in civil and canon law in 1853.

With the triumph of the Plan of Ayutla (1854), Díaz was named subprefect of Ixtlán, the beginning of his political career. He joined the Oaxaca national guard in 1856 and fought for the liberals during the War of the Reform. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in August 1861. Elected to Congress that same year, he served only briefly.

Porfirio Díaz first achieved fame as a result of his crucial role in the victory against the invading French troops at Puebla on 5 May 1862. The following year he was twice captured but managed to escape and return to the struggle, sustaining guerrilla warfare against the occupying French army throughout 1866 and taking the city of Oaxaca on 31 October of that year. The following year he led his Army of the East to victory at Puebla on 2 April and drove the imperial army from the national capital on 21 June.

Díaz opposed President Benito Juárez's convocatoria of 1867, which attempted to increase presidential power and alter the constitution by referendum. Díaz regarded the convocatoria as both unconstitutional and a personal affront. The legislature of Oaxaca lauded him in recognition of his efforts against the French, gave him the hacienda of La Noria, and supported him for the presidency of the republic. After Juárez's reelection (1867), Díaz resigned from the army and turned his attention to agriculture, his investment in the telegraph connecting Mexico and Oaxaca, and the presidential election in 1871. With another reelection of Juárez, Díaz rebelled. His Plan of la Noria claimed the election had been fraudulent and demanded that the presidency be limited to a single term. Díaz failed to dislodge Juárez, who died in mid-1872. Sebastián Lerdo De Tejada, head of the supreme court, ascended to the presidency and was soon elected to a four-year term. Díaz retired to his hacienda, made furniture, and prepared for another campaign.

Díaz rebelled against Lerdo in January 1876, charging that the elections scheduled for July of that year would be fraudulent. His Plan of Tuxtepec retained the principle of no reelection and insisted on municipal autonomy. An expert in guerrilla warfare from his days fighting the French, Díaz designed a military strategy for the revolt that called for the use of hit-and-run tactics to force the government to diffuse its forces. Contrary to traditional histories, the "battle" of Icamole on 20 May did not indicate that Díaz's effort was crumbling. Although portrayed by Lerdo's government as a great victory over forces commanded personally by Díaz, the rebel leader was not present and his subordinate in charge of the encounter was under orders only to reconnoiter and skirmish with the enemy, not to engage in a decisive battle.

In any case, Lerdo's reelection prompted José María Iglesias to charge fraud and refuse to recognize the results. As head of the Supreme Court and next in line for the presidency, Iglesias tried to assume that office himself. Faced with the opposition of both Iglesias and Díaz, Lerdo resigned and went into exile. Díaz offered to acknowledge Iglesias as president if new elections could be held soon. Iglesias refused, but soon resigned when his forces were unable to stop Díaz's advance. After holding elections, Díaz took formal possession of the presidency on 5 May 1877 for a term to end on 30 November 1881.

Although the image of a repressive Díaz has been pervasive in the post-Revolutionary literature, his first term was notable for his efforts to conciliate his rivals and opponents as well as foreign governments. Díaz sent the proposal for no reelection to Congress and supported efforts to increase political competition for state and municipal posts as well. He attempted to divide and rule the economic elite by creating rivals for political power and expanding economic opportunities.

When the Grant administration in the United States attached conditions to its recognition of his government, Díaz arranged for payments on Mexico's debt. Rutherford B. Hayes soon succeeded Grant and raised the stakes, ordering U.S. troops to cross into Mexico in pursuit of raiders, bandits, and rustlers. Díaz ordered Mexican troops to resist any invasion, and only forbearance on both sides prevented a major escalation. Díaz defused the crisis by wooing U.S. investors (among them former president Grant) with concessions, thereby ending the clamor for intervention and achieving formal recognition of his government in 1878. To balance the tremendous weight of the United States, Díaz sought to renew ties to France and other European powers, using similar efforts to attract investment and diplomatic recognition.

At the end of his first term, Díaz made good on his promise and did not run for reelection; he accepted the post of secretary of development under President Manuel González and served as governor of the state of Oaxaca. In 1884, Díaz was again elected president, losing his antipathy to reelection in 1888, 1892, 1904, and 1910. He provided stable government, balanced the budget, and assured economic growth but increased Mexico's reliance on foreign capital and the subservience of Mexican capital and labor to foreign control. His power became dictatorial; he prevented the election of his opponents and muzzled the press. But if his skills had been limited to repression, he would never have lasted as long as he did. Díaz blocked formation of political parties but encouraged rivalries between elite factions. The two major contenders for favor were the científicos, led by his father-in-law, Manuel Romero Rubio (and after his death by Díaz's finance minister, José Yves Limantour), and a cohort of military officers, led by Manuel González and later by Bernardo Reyes. Research suggests Díaz was able to exercise a relative degree of autonomy from economic interests. He acted to limit the expropriation of Indian lands by surveying companies and was flexible in dealing with peasant and labor grievances until the turn of the century.

After 1900, the system began to fall apart as the result of economic depression, political organization, increasing nationalism, blatant repression, and the fundamental uncertainty generated by the president's age. Díaz was either unwilling or unable to maintain the complex system of rivalries and balancing of contending interests that had provided stability for decades. In 1908, in an interview with the U.S. newspaper reporter James Creelman, he appeared to announce that Mexico was ready for competitive elections and that he would not run for reelection in 1910. Later Díaz changed his mind, but not until after the published remarks had created a sensation.

As he neared the age of eighty, it was obvious to everyone else that Díaz could not remain president much longer. Every level of Mexican society clamored for more nationalistic policies, from the científicos, who resented the interventionism of the U.S. government and the increasing size and power of U.S. corporations, to the railroad workers and miners, who were paid half as much as foreigners for the same work. Díaz rejected economic nationalism, but U.S. interests saw him as increasingly anti-American while his domestic opponents accused him of selling out to the United States. Finally, Díaz lost power the way he first gained it, as a result of guerrilla warfare. On 21 May 1911, his representative signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez with Francisco Madero. Díaz resigned the presidency on 25 May, and by the end of the month was on his way to exile in Paris, where he died.

See alsoMexico: 1810–1910; Porfiriato; Oaxaca (City).


The literature on Porfirian Mexico is voluminous, but there is no good, recent biography of Díaz. See the classic indictments by John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (1910; repr. 1969); Carleton Beals, Porfirio Díaz, Dictator of Mexico, (1932; repr. 1971). In Díaz's defense, see Jorge Fernando Iturribarría, Porfirio Díaz ante la historia (1967). As a guide, consult Thomas Benjamin and Marcial Ocasio-meléndez, "Organizing the Memory of Modern Mexico: Porfirian Historiography in Perspective, 1880s–1980s," in Hispanic American Historical Review 64 (May 1984): 323-364. For an excellent historical summary, see Friedrich Katz, "Mexico: Restored Republic and Porfiriato, 1867–1910," in Leslie Bethell, ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 5 (1986), pp. 3-78. On the restored republic and the Revolution of Tuxtepec, see Laurens Ballard Perry, Juárez and Díaz: Machine Politics in Mexico (1978). On Porfirian history, see Daniel Cosío Villegas, Historia moderna de México, 9 vols. (1955–1972); Daniel Cosío Villegas, The United States Versus Porfirio Díaz (1963); François-xavier Guerra, México, del antiguo régimen a la Revolución, 2 vols., translated by Sergio Fernández Bravo (1988). Recent works on Díaz's role in land-tenure questions include Donald F. Stevens, "Agrarian Policy and Instability in Porfirian Mexico," The Americas 39, no. 2 (1982): 153-166; and Robert H. Holden, "Priorities of the State in the Survey of the Public Land in Mexico, 1876–1911," Hispanic American Historical Review 70, no. 4 (1990): 579-608.

Additional Bibliography

Garner, Paul H., and Luis Pérez Villanueva. Porfirio Díaz: del héroe al dictador, una biografía política. Mexico City: Planeta, 2003.

González Navarro, Moisés. Sociedad y cultura en el porfiriato. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Dirección General de Publicaciones, 1994.

Hale, Charles. The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-century Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Johns, Michael. The City of Mexico in the Age of Díaz. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

Katz, Friedrich. De Díaz a Madero. Mexico Ciy: Ediciones Era, 2004.

Krauze, Enrique. Porfirio Díaz: místico de la autoridad. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.

Krause, Enrique, and Fausto Zerón-Medina. Porfirio. Mexico City: Clío, 1993.

Weiner, Richard. "Battle for Survival: Porfirian Views of the International Marketplace." Journal of Latin American Studies 32 (October 2000): 645-670.

                                              D. F. Stevens