The Porfiriato is the period in late nineteenth-century Mexican history dominated by General Porfirio Díaz, who became president of Mexico in 1876 and ruled almost continuously (with the exception of 1880–1884) until his forced resignation in 1911. After the presidency of his ally, General Manuel González (1880–1884), Díaz ran for the presidency again and legally served in office until 1911. Under his administration, the constitution had been amended to allow unlimited presidential re-election. Díaz had originally challenged Benito Juárez on the platform of "no re-election." During the Porfiriato, there were regular elections, marked by contentious irregularities. Although Díaz had publicly announced in an interview with journalist James Creelman that he would not run in the 1910 election, setting off a flurry of political activity, he changed his mind and decided to run again at age 80.
The contested 1910 election was a key political event that contributed to the Mexican Revolution. As Díaz aged, the question of presidential succession became increasingly important. In 1906, the office of vice president was revived, with Díaz choosing his close ally Ramón Corral from among his Científico advisers to serve in the post. By the 1910 election, the Díaz regime had become highly authoritarian, and opposition to it had increased in many sectors of Mexican society.
In the 19th century, he had been a national hero, opposing the French Intervention in the 1860s and distinguishing himself in the Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862 ("Cinco de Mayo"). Díaz entered politics following the expulsion of the French in 1867. When Benito Juárez was elected in 1871, Díaz alleged fraud. Juárez died in office in 1872, and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada succeeded him. Díaz unsuccessfully rebelled against Lerdo under the Plan de La Noria but later accepted the amnesty offered to him. However, when Lerdo ran for the presidency in 1876, Díaz successfully rebelled under the Plan de Tuxtepec.
In his early years in the presidency, Díaz was a master politician, playing factions off one another while retaining and consolidating his own power. He used the rurales, an armed police force directly under his control, as a paramilitary force to keep order in the countryside. He rigged elections, arguing that only he knew what was best for his country, and he enforced his belief with a strong hand. "Order and Progress" were the watchwords of his rule. Although Díaz came to power in 1876 under the banner of "no re-election," with the exception of the presidency of Manuel González from 1880–1884, Díaz remained in power continuously from 1884 until 1911, with rigged elections held at regular intervals to give the appearance of democracy.
Díaz's presidency was characterized by the promotion of industry and development of infrastructure by opening the country to foreign investment. He believed opposition needed to be suppressed and order maintained to reassure foreign entrepreneurs that their investments were safe. The modernization and progress in cities came at the expense of the rising working class and the peasantry.
Farmers and peasants both complained of oppression and exploitation. The economy took a great leap during the Porfiriato, as he encouraged the construction of factories and industries, and infrastructure such as roads and dams, as well as improving agriculture. Industrialization resulted in the rise of an urban proletariat and attracted an influx of foreign capital from the United States and Great Britain.
Wealth, political power, and access to education were concentrated among a handful of elite landholding families, overwhelmingly of European and mixed descent. Known as hacendados, they controlled vast swaths of the country by virtue of their huge estates (for example, the Terrazas had one estate in Sonora that alone comprised more than a million acres). Most people in Mexico were landless peasants laboring on these vast estates or industrial workers toiling for little more than slave wages. Foreign companies, mostly from the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S., also exercised influence in Mexico.
Díaz created a formidable political machine, first working with regional strongmen and bringing them into his regime, then replacing them with jefes políticos (political bosses) who were loyal to him. He skillfully managed political conflict and reined in tendencies toward autonomy. He appointed a number of military officers to state governorships, including General Bernardo Reyes, who became governor of the northern state of Nuevo León, but over the years military men were largely replaced by civilians loyal to Díaz.
As a military man himself, and one who had intervened directly in politics to seize the presidency in 1876, Díaz was acutely aware that the Federal Army could oppose him. He augmented the rurales, a police force created by Juárez, making them his personal armed force. The rurales were only 2,500 in number, as opposed to the 30,000 in the Federal Army and another 30,000 in the Federal Auxiliaries, Irregulars, and National Guard. Despite their small numbers, the rurales were highly effective in bringing control to the countryside, especially along the 12,000 miles of railway lines. They were a mobile force, often put on trains with their horses to put down rebellions in relatively remote areas of Mexico.
A banner (1903) at the office of opposition magazine El hijo de Ahuizote
reads: "The Constitution has died..." (La Constitución ha muerto...
The construction of railways had been transformative in Mexico (as well as elsewhere in Latin America), accelerating economic activity and increasing the power of the Mexican state. The isolation from the central government that many remote areas had enjoyed or suffered was ending. Telegraph lines constructed next to railroad tracks meant instant communication between distant states and the capital.
The political acumen and flexibility that Díaz had exhibited in the early years of the Porfiriato began to decline. He brought the state governors under his control, replacing them at will. The Federal Army, while large, was increasingly an ineffective force with aging leadership and troops dragooned into service. Díaz attempted the same kind of manipulation he executed with the Mexican political system with business interests, showing favoritism to European interests against those of the U.S.
Rival interests, particularly those of the Americans and the British, further complicated an already complex system of favoritism. As economic activity increased and industries thrived, industrial workers began organizing for better conditions. With the expansion of Mexican agriculture, landless peasants were forced to work for low wages or move to the cities. Peasant agriculture was under pressure as haciendas expanded, such as in the state of Morelos, just south of Mexico City, with its burgeoning sugar plantations. There was what one scholar has called “agrarian compression,” in which "population growth intersected with land loss, declining wages, and insecure tenancies to produce widespread economic deterioration," but the regions under the greatest stress weren't the ones that rebelled.
Opposition to Díaz
A number of Mexicans began to organize in opposition to Díaz policies that had welcomed foreign capital and capitalists, suppressed nascent labor unions, and consistently moved against peasants as agriculture flourished. In 1905, the group of Mexican intellectuals and agitators who had created the Mexican Liberal Party (Partido Liberal de México) drew up a radical program of reform, specifically addressing what they considered to be the worst aspects of the Díaz regime. Most prominent in the PLM were Ricardo Flores Magón and his two brothers, Enrique and Jesús. They, along with Luis Cabrera Lobato and Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, were connected to the anti-Díaz publication El Hijo del Ahuizote. Political cartoons by José Guadalupe Posada lampooned politicians and cultural elites with mordant humor, portraying them as skeletons. The Liberal Party of Mexico founded the anti-Díaz anarchist newspaper Regeneración, which appeared in both Spanish and English. In exile in the United States, Práxedis Guerrero began publishing an anti-Díaz newspaper, Alba Roja (Red Dawn), in San Francisco. Although leftist groups were small in numbers, they became highly influential through their publications which helped articulate opposition to the Díaz regime. Francisco Bulnes described these men as the “true authors” of the Mexican Revolution for agitating the masses. As the 1910 election approached, Francisco I. Madero, an idealistic political novice and member of one of Mexico's richest families, funded the newspaper Anti-Reelectionista, in opposition to the continuous re-election of Díaz.
Organized labor conducted strikes for better wages and more just treatment. Demands for better labor conditions were central to the Liberal Party Program, drawn up in 1905. Mexican copper miners in the northern state of Sonora took action in the 1906 Cananea strike. Among other grievances, they were paid less than U.S. nationals working in the mines. In the state of Veracruz, textile workers rioted in January 1907 at the huge Río Blanco factory, the world's largest, protesting against unfair labor practices. They were paid in credit that could be used only at the company store, binding them to the company.
These strikes were ruthlessly suppressed, with factory owners receiving support from government forces. In the Cananea strike, mine owner William Cornell Greene received support from Díaz's rurales in Sonora as well as Arizona Rangers called in from across the U.S. border. In the state of Veracruz, the Mexican army gunned down Rio Blanco textile workers and put the bodies on train cars that transported them to Veracruz, "where the bodies were dumped in the harbor as food for sharks". Government suppression of strikes was not unique to Mexico, with parallel occurrences both in the United States and Western Europe.
Since the press was suppressed in Mexico under Díaz, little was published in Mexico that was critical of the regime. Newspapers barely reported on the Rio Blanco textile strike, the Cananea strike, or harsh labor practices on plantations in Oaxaca and Yucatán. Leftist Mexican opponents of the Díaz regime, such as Ricardo Flores Magón and Práxedis Guerrero, went into exile in the relative safety of the United States, but cooperation between the U.S. government and Díaz's agents resulted in the arrest of some.
Presidential succession in 1910
Díaz had ruled continuously since 1884. The question of presidential succession was an issue as early as 1900, when Díaz turned 70. It was his "undeclared intention to step down from the presidency in 1904." Díaz seems to have considered his finance minister José Yves Limantour as his successor. Limantour was a key member of the Científicos, the circle of technocratic advisers steeped in positivist political science.
Another potential successor was General Bernardo Reyes, Diaz's Minister of War, who also served as governor of Nuevo León. Reyes, an opponent of the Científicos, was a moderate reformer with a considerable base of support. Díaz became concerned about him as a rival, and forced his resignation from his cabinet. He attempted to marginalize Reyes by sending him on a "military mission" to Europe, distancing him from Mexico and potential political supporters.
Díaz re-established the office of vice president in 1906, choosing Ramón Corral. Rather than managing political succession, Díaz marginalized Corral, keeping him away from any decision-making.
In a 1908 interview with U.S. journalist James Creelman, Díaz said that Mexico was ready for democracy and that he would step down to allow other candidates to compete for the presidency. If Díaz had kept to this, the presidency and vice presidency would have been open in 1910. Díaz's later reversal on retiring from the presidency set off tremendous activity among opposition groups.
"The potential challenge from Reyes would remain one of Díaz's political obsessions through the rest of the decade, which ultimately blinded him to the danger of the challenge of Francisco Madero's anti-reelectionist campaign."
In 1910, Francisco I. Madero, a young man from a wealthy land-owning family in the northern state of Coahuila, announced his intent to challenge Díaz for the presidency in the next election, under the banner of the Anti-Reelectionist Party. Madero chose as his running mate Francisco Vázquez Gómez, a physician who had opposed Díaz. Although similar overall to Díaz in his ideology, Madero hoped for other elites to rule alongside the president. Díaz thought he could control this election, as he had the previous seven; however, Madero campaigned vigorously and effectively. To ensure Madero did not win, Díaz had him jailed before the election. Madero escaped and fled for a short period to San Antonio, Texas. Díaz was announced the winner of the election by a "landslide". When it became obvious that the election had been fixed, Madero supporter Toribio Ortega took up arms with a group of followers at Cuchillo Parado, Chihuahua on 10 November 1910.
End of the Porfiriato
On 5 October 1910, Madero issued a "letter from jail," known as the Plan de San Luis Potosí, with its main slogan Sufragio Efectivo, No Re-elección ("free suffrage and no re-election"). It declared the Díaz presidency illegal and called for revolt against Díaz, starting on 20 November 1910. Madero's political plan did not outline major socioeconomic revolution, but it offered the hope of change for many disadvantaged Mexicans.
Principal battles during the fight to oust Díaz, November 1910 – May 1911. Most action was in the northern border area, with the Battle of Ciudad Juárez
being a decisive blow, but the struggle in Morelos by the Zapatistas was also extremely important since the state was just south of the Mexican capital.
Madero's plan was aimed at fomenting a popular uprising against Díaz, but he also understood that the support of the United States and U.S. financiers would be of crucial importance in undermining the regime. The rich and powerful Madero family drew on its resources to make regime change possible, with Madero's brother Gustavo A. Madero hiring, in October 1910, the firm of Washington lawyer Sherburne Hopkins, the "world's best rigger of Latin American revolutions", to encourage support in the U.S. A strategy to discredit Díaz with U.S. business and the U.S. government achieved some success, with Standard Oil representatives engaging in talks with Gustavo Madero. More importantly, the U.S. government "bent neutrality laws for the revolutionaries."
In late 1910 revolutionary movements broke out in response to Madero's Plan de San Luis Potosí. Madero's vague promises of land reform in Mexico attracted many peasants throughout Mexico. Spontaneous rebellions arose in which ordinary farm laborers, miners, and other working-class Mexicans, along with much of the country's population of indigenous natives, fought Díaz's forces, with some success. Madero attracted the forces of rebel leaders such as Pascual Orozco, Pancho Villa, Ricardo Flores Magón, Emiliano Zapata, and Venustiano Carranza. A young and able revolutionary, Orozco, along with governor Abraham González, formed a powerful military union in the north, and, although they were not especially committed to Madero, took Mexicali and Chihuahua City. These victories encouraged alliances with other revolutionary leaders, including Pancho Villa. Against Madero's wishes, Orozco and Villa fought for and won Ciudad Juárez, bordering El Paso, Texas, on the south side of the Rio Grande. Madero's call to action had some unanticipated results, such as the Magonista rebellion of 1911 in Baja California.