Chapter 8

The Porfiriato:  Prelude to Revolution

           When Porfirio Díaz moved into the Presidency, he did so championing a political philosophy of "no reelection"; yet, of all the rulers of Mexico, he managed to stay in power longer than any of them.

           Although his longevity in office can be attributed in part to his skill as a shrewd politician it also owed much to the tenor of the times: on the one hand, the Mexican people were eager for peace, and on the other, foreign capitalists were anxious to develop the country's resources. At this juncture in Mexico's history it probably wouldn't have mattered much who occupied the presidency, as long as he was in tune with these concerns, and Don Porfírio definitely was.  "Order" and "Progress" quickly became the key words of his administration.

           A mestizo from Oaxaca whose grandmother was a full-blooded Mixtec, Díaz rose through the ranks of the military to the grade of Captain before moving first into local and later into national politics. Though as an army officer he had shown no mercy for captured Conservative rebels, ordering them shot in cold blood, once he moved into the presidency he adopted a more conciliatory posture by showing clemency to his enemies. A pragmatist rather than an ideologue, he soon abandoned the Liberal policy of promoting regional autonomy and established in its place a strongly centralized government. He also realized that to advance national harmony and stability he would have to work with the Church, so the Reform laws passed by Juárez administration were quietly ignored. He kept the army loyal by overlooking graft and corruption and by making regular promotions, while at the same keeping it small and relatively powerless. Early on Díaz had learned to trust no one, concluding that the best way to accomplish this was to keep his associates suspicious of one another so that they wouldn't ally themselves against him; thus, his philosophy was one of "divide and conquer" and he made fear a cornerstone of his regime. He brooked no dissent and consequently had no use for a free press. Convinced that Mexico could not afford the luxury of political dissension and still enjoy economic growth, he summarized his ideology as "Little politics and lots of administration."

           The so-called "Revolution of Tuxtepec" which helped put Díaz in office in 1876 had mandated that there be no re-election of the President or of state governors, so when it came time for him to step down at the end of his term in 1880, he did so by naming as his successor Manuel González, a loyal and pliant hacendado on whom he could count to retire from the political stage when directed to do so. As luck would have it, during González' term in office the speculative activity of foreign capitalists and the graft and corruption of Mexican officials reached such proportions that riots broke out in the larger cities, and in 1884 Díaz was literally welcomed back to the presidency with open arms. As his second term neared its end in 1888, he managed to push the Congress into amending the Constitution to allow him to be re-elected one more time. However, this did not prevent him from intimidating Congress into granting him two further terms in office, and in 1902, he pressured the Congress to amend the Constitution again, this time permitting him to be re-elected indefinitely. When he took office for the seventh time in 1904  (now aged 74), he had the Constitution re-written to extend the President's term from four to six years and at the same time had the office of Vice-President created so that he could groom someone to take over when he decided that he could no longer continue in office himself.

           Don Porfirio gave Mexico such "stability" that virtually nothing changed in the political arena during his tenure in office.  Cabinet ministers, governors, legislators, supreme court justices, and, most especially, the lesser bureaucrats, all hung on to their own offices almost as tenaciously as Díaz did to his. Surely, death finally put an end to the tenure of the most senior of the party hacks, but nepotism usually took care of filling such vacancies with an efficient alacrity.  Few were they who "bit the hand of he who fed them", so the "establishment" managed to keep itself firmly in power throughout the three decades that Díaz occupied the presidency.  

           In the economic sphere, the first capitalists who had been desirous of obtaining a toehold in Mexico had been the English and the French, building railways, reopening old mines and developing new ones, and establishing plantations to grow specialty crops for export. But, when Mexico defaulted on its international obligations in the 1870's, credit from Europe quickly dried up, and the country turned to the United States for economic help instead. The rapidly expanding "Colossus of the North" saw in Mexico a treasure house of minerals and tropical commodities waiting to be linked to its growing market by the railway, so some of the earliest U.S. investments were in improving the country's infrastructure. In the wake of the steam engine came electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, and a modern banking system. The restrictive colonial tax on local commerce known as the alcabala was abolished and free trade became the order of the day. The large landowners could now abandon antiquated, traditional methods of agriculture by expanding their holdings and increasing their production through mechanization. For the hacendados, the merchant class, the mine-owners, and the bankers this was a period of optimism and promise. Mexicans wealthy enough to travel abroad were accorded such deference that they returned with a new sense of pride in their nation. Theirs was a country "on the go" and most of them were quite prepared to thank Díaz for finally putting it on the right track.

           Among Díaz' more outspoken supporters were two so-called "Científicos", or "scientists", members of a "brains-trust" on which he often relied for advice.  Francisco Bulnes frankly concluded that Mexico was not ready for democracy, the reason being that it had so large a population of Indians who he characterized as being both lazy and rather stupid.  Justo Sierra, for his part, argued, "the dictatorship of a progressive man, provided that he is an honorable and intelligent administrator of the public funds, is generally of great benefit to an immature country because it preserves peace."  Such sentiments were echoed throughout the upper classes who had become the beneficiaries of Díaz' laissez faire philosophy, although they were probably not shared by the great mass of the Mexican people. Abrogating democratic principles and giving away the country's resources to foreign investors had scarcely improved their lot at all. Indeed, in many ways they were worse off than they had been before Díaz had stepped into the Presidency.

           The construction of railways had not only materially impacted land values, but in some states had gone so far as to alter the local balance of power between those areas through which the lines had been built and those which had been by-passed. Geographically, the railway served to substitute a national market for regional ones for the first time in the country's history. Relative ease of movement likewise encouraged migration within the country, as poor, landless rural dwellers sought employment in the urban areas with their developing industries. Contrasts in living standards between the cities and the countryside were widened further, while in the expanding urban centers themselves the disparity between the districts of upper and middle-class housing and those of the impoverished hordes seeking employment in the shops and factories grew steadily more pronounced. 

           The appalling housing conditions of the urban working class led to mortality rates in Mexico City that were higher than those recorded in many of the major cities of Africa or Asia.  Tuberculosis, syphilis, and pellagra were endemic among the lower-class population, and typhoid, smallpox, and gastrointestinal infections took heavy tolls as well. Working conditions in the shops and factories were just as abominable, with workers being required to put in 10 to 12 hours per day in dark, unsanitary locales for wages which averaged three pesos a week for men and about half that for women.  In many firms, deductions were made from the workers' wages for contributions to the Church, for fines imposed for minor infractions of the work rules, and even for the wear and tear on the equipment in the factory. Management, the government, the courts, and the Church were all aligned against labor to such an extent that workers who joined unions were punished, strikes were made illegal, and a law was passed making it a crime for anyone to even attempt to change wages.  Accident coverage on the job was left entirely up to the "munificence" of the factory and mine owners, and often went no farther than paying the hospital bill and providing a cash payment of five to fifteen pesos for the loss of one or more limbs.

           Apart from the railways and mining, foreign capitalists financed few of Mexico’s new industries. The latter were more interested in extracting the country's resources and raw materials for use abroad than they were in promoting the development of domestic manufacturing. As a result, such industries as arose in Mexico were those producing for the home market -- textiles, iron and steel, paper, breweries, glass, soap, explosives, tobacco products, cement, henequen, and sugar. Many of these nascent industries soon realized that they could not compete with those in countries such as Britain and the United States that were flooding world markets with products priced considerably lower than Mexico could match, even with its miserably paid work-force. In order to protect its small, inefficient industries, Mexico felt obliged to erect high tariff barriers; moreover, lacking a viable domestic market with adequate purchasing power, many Mexican firms soon found themselves glutted by overproduction. When world economic conditions took their periodic down-turns, as happened in 1873, 1893, 1900, and 1907, Mexican industries were even more depressed, and foreign investment all but ceased following the latter "panic". Adding to Mexico's misfortunes was the fact that none of its industries produced capital goods, so any replacement of machinery and equipment inevitably had to come from abroad.

           During the Díaz era not only did a major geographic re-distribution of Mexico's population take place, but also a major increase in its size as well. Despite the sordid living conditions, which prevailed in the burgeoning towns and cities, the number of Mexicans almost doubled during the thirty-odd years of the Porfiriato. Urban growth was reflected in many new buildings, paved streets, electric lights, and often by the construction of wrought-iron bandstands in the centers of the town plazas -- certainly some of the more charming relics of the Díaz age. In the social arena, women became more active in the labor force, modest steps were taken in the realm of public education, and even some cognizance was given to the indigenous contribution to Mexico's cultural heritage. No less a writer than Justino Sierra hailed Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs, as Mexico's first "true hero."

           The Miracle Unravels

           As long as the Mexican upper-classes and the Yankee investors continued to prosper, they saw no real reason to worry about the niceties of democratic government or social justice. As far as they were concerned, Díaz could stay in office for as many terms as he wished or by whatever means he chose to employ; what mattered to them was that their "good life" continue. Certainly, with the elite so well satisfied economically, there was no cause to "rock the boat" politically.

           During the tenure of González, the ancient law that reserved the sub-soil rights of Mexico to the government was abolished and from 1884 on all minerals and water found beneath the surface belonged to whoever bought the land. Among the most remunerative investments realized by foreign investors in Mexico were those made in the Gulf coastal plain just after the turn of the century.  American geologists had every reason to believe that the same oil- and gas-rich formations that underlay Louisiana and Texas continued southward along the coast of Mexico as well. So, beginning in 1900, Edward Doheny started buying up large sections of the lowland surrounding Tampico, some of it at a cost of a dollar an acre, and within a few years his properties totaled over a million and a half acres, much of it underlain by the "black gold" which he had surmised to be there but which was totally unsuspected by the Mexicans. Not to be outdone, Weetman Pearson, an English wheeler-dealer, proceeded to do the same some miles farther south, and by 1910 the annual production of oil from Mexico totaled 13 million barrels, almost all of which came from these foreign-owned properties. When these lands were later re-sold, Standard Oil purchased Doheny's holdings and Royal Dutch Shell acquired Pearson’s properties, both yielding substantial profits to their original investors.

           In the northern border states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila, huge parcels of land were quickly surveyed and sold at ridiculous prices, both to wealthy Mexicans and Yankee speculators, in order to open up vast new cattle ranches in the eastern plains, timber operations in the western mountains, and mines in the intermediate foothills.   One consequence of this "land boom" was that during the final decades of the 19th century, the unscrupulous survey companies expropriated the tribal lands and water rights of such peoples as the Yaqui and Mayo in northwestern Mexico. Of course, such practices were nothing new, for similar seizures of indigenous holdings had been going on in central and southern Mexico ever since the Spanish Conquest. However, once these Indians had been alienated from their fertile, irrigated valleys, survival for them was impossible. When they rose in revolt, they were quickly crushed by troops rushed in by the central government, and many of the Yaqui were deported to Yucatán where they were conscripted to work as slaves on the large henequen plantations.  In the latter region, the local Maya had risen in revolt several times themselves, protesting the taking of their lands by the plantation owners, but had likewise been put down by force.

           Its Mexican sponsors saw the enactment of the so-called “Idle Land” Act of 1893 as a method of encouraging European immigration, similar to the Homestead Act in the United States.  This desire on the part of the Mexican elite was to promote the "whitening" of the national complexion, for they believed that it was only by "diluting" the Indian presence that they could "raise the level of civilization" in their country, or, at the very least, "keep it from sinking."  While the law failed to attract many Europeans, it certainly did open the doors to a large-scale land-grab by the "gringos", among who were some bona fide small farmers with Mormon and Mennonites backgrounds.  However, when several of the larger American land-owners started fencing their vast domains with barbed wire and patrolling their properties with armed guards to keep the Mexicans out, friction between the local population and their new Yankee neighbors quickly began to escalate.  In any event, by the end of the Díaz era, Americans owned over 100 million acres of Mexican territory, most of it in the northern border states and comprised of much of the region's richest farm and pasture land, its largest tracts of virgin forest, and almost all of the copper, silver, lead, and zinc mines which dotted its foothills. In the country as a whole, one percent of the Mexican population now held legal title to 97 % of the country's land, while five-sixths of the campesinos, or rural dwellers, had no land at all.

           Virtually all of these large land-holdings in the North, as well as many in the central and southern parts of the country as well, were oriented to the American market. Cattle, timber, minerals, cotton, and guayule (a source of rubber) all were funneled out of Mexico and into the U.S. on American built- and operated railways.  From central Mexico came sugar, peanuts, flax, tobacco, and coffee, and from the Yucatán, the prized cordage fiber, henequen. Yet, because of the heavy emphasis on commercial agriculture for export, Mexico had been steadily falling behind in the production of staple foodstuffs.  Despite the country's rapid growth in population during the Díaz era, its production of both corn and wheat were actually lower than when Don Porfirio took office. As a consequence, the import of grain from Argentina and the United States had increased steadily, as had food costs in general. With the daily wage of a landless peon averaging 25 centavos, there was simply no way that most Mexicans field-hands could feed themselves, much less their families.  

           Unfortunately, the prosperity that the hacendados, the mineowners, the industrialists, and the wealthier merchants enjoyed during the first decades of Díaz rule began to crumble as the country moved into the 20th century.  Beginning about 1905, the summer rains on which the farmers and ranchers of northern Mexico depended for their annual moisture supply began to fail and for the next four to five years they were so undependable that water-courses dried up and pastures were parched.  The already-low productivity of the country's agricultural sector was further curtailed by drought, and imports of expensive corn and wheat now became even more costly.  Ranchers suffered serious losses as their cattle herds were cut back; tenant farmers and sharecroppers were literally "blown away" as desert winds eroded the dusty soils around them.  Even in good years, Mexico's landless campesinos could count on scarcely half a year's employment; now they had none.  The specter of starvation hung menacingly over the desolate countryside.

           In 1907 the bottom totally dropped out of Porfirio's economic miracle:  the international "panic" of that year all but closed the American market to Mexican exports. Prices dropped drastically.  Mines, factories, and sawmills closed. Railways that once bustled with traffic now stood almost idle. Mexicans who held jobs in American-owned enterprises were either let go immediately or had their wages cut severely as the company struggled to somehow weather the storm. Mexican industries, already suffering from over-production, now lost even more of their domestic market as the middle class saw their life-style increasingly endangered.  Land speculators, investors, and bankers lost their shirts, as one financial institution after another went belly-up. Wildcat strikes and riots broke out in some of the mining and saw-milling towns and in the larger industrial cities.  What had been a climate of hope and rising expectations, at least for the upper classes of Mexico, had suddenly become clouded by insecurity, doubt, and disillusionment.  But, even as they struggled to find some explanation for the precipitous decline in their fortunes, they stopped short of condemning Don Porfirio himself; they chose instead to place the blame for this ominous reversal in Mexican affairs on his ministers, his cronies, and, most of all upon the Americans in whom Díaz had put his trust. Nonetheless, in 1910 when Díaz announced his intention to run for President for an eighth time, virtually everyone knew that the "honeymoon was over ". Things had already gone too far; the landless peons were starving; the miners and factory workers were out of work; the banks were defunct; Mexico was seriously in debt; and most of the country's resources were in American hands.  Something drastic had to happen if the people of Mexico were to regain their hope for a better future!

(Back to Table of Contents)          (Continue to Next Chapter)