Porfirio Díaz
Porfirio Díaz

The Porfiriato corresponds to the period in which Porfirio Díaz served as president of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911. The origins of Porfirio Díaz's political power can be traced to his participation in the military and political battles of the 1850s and 1860s. Díaz embraced liberalism as the ideological foundation of his regime.

Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, he aimed to establish a federal republic where democratic institutions would represent an egalitarian and secular society. Nevertheless, he was to build his career through an incipient patronage network, starting with the local priest's recommendation that he be accepted in the local Catholic seminary school in Oaxaca.

During the Mexican-American War in 1847, 16year-old Díaz joined the army to help repel the invasion but in the end did not engage in combat. Soon after, he met Benito Juárez, already an elected governor of Oaxaca, who inspired him to study law.

However, the military coup that restored the flamboyant and corrupt dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna to power to undertake his 11th—and final—term in office caused Díaz to abandon his studies again to join the resistance. In March 1854 a group of dissidents met in Ayutla, Guerrero, to plot the downfall of Santa Anna.

Call for Ouster

There the group 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 were sent into exile by Santa Anna, returned to Mexico and eagerly joined in the insurrection.

Santa Anna fled the country in August 1855, and Álvarez took over as provisional president. Juárez became minister of justice, and Díaz, only 25, was named subprefect of the town of Ixtlán in Nayarit.

A new constitution was adopted on February 5, 1857, containing provisions restricting the power of the church. These infuriated clerics and conservatives, and thus began the bloody Reform War of 1858–61, so named because of the "Reform Laws" that were so objectionable 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 being captured three times, and during 1864–67 led forces that inflicted nine defeats on the imperialists.

When caught by Maximilian's forces, he refused a pardon and then made a daredevil escape from jail in 1865, after which he became a liberal hero. As Maximilian's empire collapsed, Díaz commanded a formidable army, which on July 15, 1867, made its triumphal entry into Mexico City.

After running for the presidency in 1867—and losing to Juárez—Díaz went back to Oaxaca to cultivate sugarcane in his "La Noria" hacienda. While his brother served as governor in Oaxaca, and Porfirio Díaz concentrated on regaining political power, he crafted the La Noria insurrection plan, which defied Juárez's government and initiated an uprising anticipating the presidential elections of 1871. However, the La Noria plot did not succeed, and the insurrection was suffocated in a few months.

After Benito Juárez's sudden death in 1872, interim president Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada granted amnesty to rebellious Porfiristas to gain political control over the country. Tejada ruled for a short period since he failed to see the implications of reducing federal autonomy to the states and for pursuing reelection again.

Along with the social uprising, the supreme court's president, José María Iglesias, advocated for the reestablishment of the rule of law and the legitimacy of democratic elections and headed for the presidency. Nevertheless, his refusal to share power with the Porfiristas led Díaz to occupy the capital as the head of the "constitutional army."

Porfirio Díaz took office in 1876 and assumed as his first endeavor to "pacify" the country after so much revolt. However, his methods of establishing the Porfirian Pax were grounded on intimidation, coercion, and repression strategies. Another factor that contributed to establishing order as the basis for progress was the systematization of daily life through various civil, judicial, and commercial codes and regulations.

Another Term

When his first presidential term ended in 1880, Díaz went back to Oaxaca to become governor and a cabinet minister, while his friend General Manuel González was elected president. González rewarded his friends and was on good terms with others, gaining political support in his own right. He had the constitution amended to allow Díaz to be elected to another term.

In 1884 the Central Railway was completed, connecting Mexico to the United States. President González recognized Mexican debts to Great Britain, an action that proved to be essential to the country's establishing good credit.

There was substantial economic development under González, but he left the presidency under suspicion of extended corruption. With the constitution amended to allow his reelection, Díaz returned to save the nation from the misrule of González and was reelected president in 1880 and would remain until 1911.

Under Díaz's rule infrastructure and public works spread all over the country, multiplying the rail system, telegraphs, and other communications networks, which built Díaz's image as the builder of a progressive and modern Mexico.

The regime also supported the creation of primary and secondary schools, where the values of patriotism, order, freedom, and progress were to be cultivated. However, technical and professional education was not prioritized, as if progress would not require specialized skills in order to be achieved.

It was with external financial resources that Díaz stimulated the internal market through industrial development, while mining extraction was intended for the external market's demand.

However, it is worth stating that agriculture never kept the pace of development at large, even when the 6,000 hacienda owners were favored by the regime, which favored feudal practices that allowed the formation of huge concentrations of land.

Moreover, inequity was reflected in every area of society, as in professional education, which was concentrated in a few major cities. So eager was Díaz to attract foreign capital that he adopted discriminating policies for Mexican mining employees, which later accounted for a major strike—which was ruthlessly suppressed—at the Cananea Consolidated Mining Company in Sonora. Díaz also cleverly played one side against the other, encouraging British and European capital as a counterbalance to U.S. capital.

The end of Díaz's regime (1904–11) was marked by foreign investments flowing into the country, which fostered the production of goods and services. Likewise, the oil industry grew from 5,000 to 8 million annual barrels by the first decade of the 20th century.

However, at the time a growing critique by young, middle-class intellectuals started to manifest. This group was headed by Camilo Arriaga, Juan Sarabia, and the Flores Magón brothers and started to craft an antireelection campaign.

Even when the repression of opposition leaders was a priority, Díaz was serene enough to supervise the Centenario celebration (the 100-year anniversary of independence); to attend the inauguration of public works, schools, hospitals, and monuments; and even to lead parades.

Two months later Francisco Madero led an uprising that marked the beginning of a decade-long revolutionary civil war and through the Plan de San Luis proclaimed the nonreelection of Díaz. After several months of insurrection, Porfirio Díaz resigned and headed for exile in France, where he died some years later.

During the Porfiriato, progress materialized in infrastructures and communications within major cities. However, the economy became totally dependent on the United States due to major investments in industries. Foreign domination extended over technical and economic domains, contrasting with the profound patriotism that Juárez, Lerdo, and Díaz professed.

During the liberal age nationalistic propaganda succeeded in transmitting to the general public a national sense and a conscience that bonded race, history, and territory within a cultural symbolism that defined national identity for years to come.