Porfirio Diaz "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," (Tuck). Indeed, Porfirio's life is characterized by a series of ironies. Porfirio was a Mestizo. His mother was a Native woman and his father was a working class Criollo (Mexican-born Spaniard). Some sources trace the Diaz family on both sides to Mestizo, "descended from both Mixtec Indians and Spaniards," (Mabry). In any case, Porfirio Diaz's father Jose de la Cruz Diaz died when Porfirio was three years old. Porfirio was one of eight children. Although Porfirio was "born into extreme poverty and never even reached complete literacy," and although the "early years of his life were filled with economic hardship and tragedy, the man would become one of the enemies of Mexico's poor (Minster n.d.; "Porfirio Diaz - from Military Hero to Dictator" n.d.).
Young Porfirio was sent off to religious school, and initially studied law. His mother Patrona was determined that Porfirio would become a priest, but Porfirio preferred action to study and would eventually become a soldier-politician," (Mabry). By the time he was in his early 20s, Porfirio Diaz became involved in the military. "He dabbled in law, but in 1855 he joined a band of liberal guerrillas who were fighting a resurgent Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna," (Minster n.d.). The reason why Porfirio Diaz (whose full name is Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz) became politically aware and militarily involved was because of his interactions with Benito Juarez, a politically active Zapotec Indian.
"Influenced and inspired by Juarez' commitment to social justice, Diaz' early allegiance was to the ideals of liberalism," ("Porfirio Diaz - from Military Hero to Dictator" n.d.). At the time, Mexico was relatively unstable and certainly poor. The United States-Mexican War was raging when Porfirio was still studying law in seminary school when he met Benito Juarez. The two men had met and studied together. Porfirio Diaz "received his early education at the same seminary that Juarez attended and then matriculated at the Institute of Science and Art in Oaxaca," (Tuck). After the United States-Mexican War ended, Porfirio had been enlisted in Mexico's National Guard but had not been sent into combat.
By the 1850s, Porfirio Diaz had become inextricably involved with Benito Juarez and like-minded dissidents. Their main cause for concern was "the flamboyant and corrupt dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna," (Tuck). The dissidents launched a successful campaign against Santa Ana, who was in 1855 forced to flee the country. One of the leaders of the insurrection, General Juan Alvarez, became the nation's provisional president (Tuck).
At twenty-five years old, Porfirio Diz had his first taste of power politics. He had hobnobbed with the likes of General Juan Alvarez, Ignacio Comonfort, "an Acapulco customs official with liberal views," and of course, Benito Juarez. Mexico underwent a relatively turbulent time in its self-definition during the 1850s. After ousting Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the new liberal government under Alvarez had attempted to reform the country radically by minimizing the power of the Catholic Church. The French government was intervening in Mexican affairs at this point, much to the chagrin of the Reformists like Alvarez and Diaz.
The Reformists under Alvarez fought vehemently for their right to self-determination. This led to the Reform War of 1858-61 and then subsequently the war against Maximilian and the French intervention in 1864-67. In 1862, "Diaz temporarily stopped the French army advance on Mexico City at the battle of Puebla on May 5... A feat which earned him promotion to general of brigade," (Mabry). "This battle is commemorated every year by Mexicans on Cinco de Mayo...one of the key players in the battle was young general Porfirio Diaz,...it did make Diaz famous and cemented his reputation as one of the best military minds serving under Juarez," (Minster). The Conservatives backed European imperialism, and their efforts were thwarted by Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz. Their victories ensured Mexico's stance against European colonial and imperial powers. Yet domestic rule remained up in the air for many years after the reformists ousted the European powers.
At the end of the war against the French, Porfirio Diaz became the governor of La Noria, a hacienda in his native state of Oaxaca.
Tuck insists that Porfirio Diaz developed a personal grudge against his former mentor Benito Juarez, who ostensibly "snubbed" Porfirio in a military parade. Whatever the cause, Porfirio did end up becoming his mentor's political rival. After losing against Benito Juarez in a municipal election, Porfirio Diaz claimed the election was "fraudulent" and invoked the concept of term limits (Tuck). Later, Porfirio Diaz again ran on the concept that politicians should be limited to a short-term in office in the interests of the democratic process.
Ironically, Porfirio would come to completely reverse his stance on term limits once he himself became the President of Mexico. The idea that political leaders should be limited by law for the amount of time they spend in office would become the epitome of Porfirio Diaz's ironic rule. Diaz actually went into hiding for a brief period after he opposed Benito Juarez and ran against him for president in 1871. According to Minster, "When he lost, Diaz rebelled, and it took Juarez four months to put the insurrection down." The squelching of the uprising drove Diaz into hiding. During this time, Porfirio Diaz married Delfina Ortega y Reyes and had three children. This would not be the first or last time that Porfirio Diaz went into hiding because of his political escapades. It would also not be the first time Diaz married.
In 1872, Benito Juarez died during his term as president. Vice President Sabastian Lerdo de Tejada took over. Soon thereafter, in 1876, Porfirio Diaz took full advantage of the power vacuum and ran on the platform of liberalism. He even developed the "Plan de Tuxtepec," which "a plan of governance that mainly rested upon the principle of a one-term presidential office with reelection forbidden," ("Porfirio Diaz - from Military Hero to Dictator" n.d.).
Porfirio Diaz "first became president of Mexico through revolt, not electoral politics," (Mabry). After Juarez died, "Diaz quietly began organizing a coalition to use to win the 1876 presidential election or, if necessary, to overthrow the government," (Mabry). Porfirio Diaz developed his political acumen during these crucial years, forging ties with the media as well as with the Catholic Church. Diaz deftly made friends with clerics by appeasing their fears that the constitutional clauses protecting their powers would be overthrown with a reformist and liberal government. Instead, Diaz granted the Church protection. At the same time, Diaz disparaged his political opponents by manipulating media messages and acting advantageously. Minster notes, that "with the support of the United States and the Catholic Church, [Diaz] brought an army into Mexico City in 1876, removing President Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada and seizing power in a dubious 'election.'"
As per the terms of the Constitution that he himself professed to uphold, Porfirio Diaz initially held office for only one term. After that, "a hand-picked successor assumed the office next," in a sort of puppet regime ("Porfirio Diaz - From Military Hero to Dictator" n.d.). The puppet was Manuel Gonzalez. "Chaos and instability dogged this administration. The next election saw Porfirio Diaz reneging on his earlier promise of a one-term presidential office. Porfirio promptly emerged the winner and assumed office," ("Porfirio Diaz - From Military Hero to Dictator" n.d.). Herein began the downfall of Porfirio Diaz.
After 1884, Porfirio Diaz "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," (Minster). His administration became known as a regime, the era as the "Porfiriato." Diaz used "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."
Diaz's presidential administration is therefore a conflicting one. On the one hand, the Mexican President introduced political policies and reforms that would welcome industrialization and modernization. The meant that railroads could be built, mines would be harvested, and factories would hum. Diaz understood the importance of foreign direct investment during this time, even as he was a champion of political sovereignty and held anti-colonial attitudes. As Minster puts it, "Diaz 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." Moreover, "the Americans and British invested heavily in mines and oil, the French had large textile…
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