May 18 – 25, 2019: The Regime of Porfirio Díaz

This week we are going to take a look at the political program of Porfirio Díaz. He was President of Mexico from 1876-1880, then again from 1884-1911, after a 4 year lapse with intervening President Manuel González. Díaz was a military man from Oaxaca, a rising liberal star under President Benito Juárez during La Reforma. In 1876, with the backing of the army, he issued the Plan de Tuxtepec, a revolt against the then-current regime and declaration of himself as President of Mexico. After he took office, he amended the Constitution of 1857 to proclaim no re-election and a presidential term of 4 years.

Porfirio Diaz
Porfirio Díaz, Portrait exhibited in the Museo del Templo y Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, in the city of Oaxaca, México. Wikimedia commons.

The Mexico that Díaz inherited was in shambles. The national debt was out of control, it lacked basic infrastructure such as a consistent railway system, technology and modernization were light years behind other industrializing countries such as the U.S. and Britain, and there was a public health crisis especially in Central Mexico where recurrent floods led to stagnating waters and disease. The reputation of the country abroad was that of a backward nation.

Díaz adopted the slogan “Order and Progress”: in order for Mexico to progress as a nation, the rule of law needed to come first. Díaz effectively squashed opposition, using his army to violently put down agrarian strikes and to execute dissenters. Meyer, et al. write that “rebel leaders who were not shot down on the field of battle were disposed of shortly after their capture… characteristic of Díaz’s attitude toward those who would disrupt the national peace was his reaction to a revolt in Veracruz during his first year in office… ‘Mátalos en caliente’ (Kill them on the spot).” (379)  Díaz also established order through the appointment of loyal political cronies into lesser offices such as governors, jefes políticos (district heads), and army officers. In return for their loyalty, these agents were able to enrich themselves and exercise full control over their respective territories, often with a heavy hand.

The Porfiriato was also the age of the land-grab. Laws such as the Ley de Deslindes (1883) and the Ley de Terrenos Baldíos (1894) opened the door to large real estate companies and wealthy individuals seizing large tracts of land, land that was often held communally by indigenous communities (ejidos). “If the victims offered armed resistance, Díaz sent troops against them and sold the vanquished rebels like slaves to labor on henequen plantations in Yucatán or sugar plantations in Cuba.” Keen & Haynes, 2013 (257-258). By 1910, it is estimated that 90% of indigenous villages in Central Mexico had lost their communal lands, and that landless peons and their families comprised 9.5 million of a rural population of 12 million. (Ibid) Indeed, this presents a large, systematic problem that eventually became the basis for revolt during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

Sugar plantation 1900-1910
“Sugar Cane on the Rio ?, Veracruz.” AGN, Colección Fotográfica de Propiedad Artística y Literaria, Charles B. Waite, Haciendas y Plantaciones, foto 23.

In order to better understand the policies initiated by Porfirio Díaz and his advisors, it is necessary to discuss the ideologies of the era. The first is positivism, the idea famously put forth by Auguste Comte that knowledge is based on natural phenomena, or what can be seen, heard, and touched; therefore, empirical data was prized over metaphysics and theology. Reason and logic ruled the day, and scientific thinking could be applied to social issues in order to find practical solutions. Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism was also a component of Porfirian politics. In this school of thought, humans were in a struggle for “survival of the fittest,” where the weak (i.e. the poor, the dark-skinned) would ultimately be overruled by the strong (the rich, the white). The weak were expected to be in a constant state of development to reach the pinnacle of “civilization,” meaning to be assimilated into the dominant culture of the powerful. This theory was the basis for many racially-based policies in the 19th-century, such as forced Indian education and the breakup of ejidos, where unused land was considered to be misused by the natives who were hindering national progress.

In that vein, Porfirio Díaz hired científicos, a group of technocrats who used positivist thinking to “scientifically” modernize society. Most famous of these were José Limantour (Secretary of Treasury) and Justo Sierra (Secretary of Education), who were adherents to the idea of the “inherent inferiority of the native and mestizo population and the consequent necessity for relying on the white elite and on foreigners and their capital to lead Mexico out of its backwardness” Keen & Haynes, 2013 (256).  Development was important to the científicos, who strove to make Mexico a desirable place for foreign investment. Limantour was able to make some economic gains for the country. For example, he reformed tariffs, switched the country from a silver to a gold standard, and made administrative changes intended to reduce governmental corruption and graft.

Jose Limantour 1910
José Limantour, 1910. U.S. Library of Congress, Wikimedia commons.

The country began to modernize under this regime, replacing animal and human labor with steam, water, and electric power. Hydraulic and hydro-electric stations were built and machinery came with it. The telephone arrived in the 1880s, and a nationwide telegraph system was finally installed. Díaz hired an overseas engineering firm to oversee the sanitation crisis in Mexico City, and they were able to build a canal and a tunnel to address the flooding problem. A large number of neoclassical public buildings and monuments began to pop up in the cities. Railroads became big business and linked cities together, which expanded domestic markets and furthered economic growth . Foreign investment became important in the areas of mining and oil production, as U.S. and British companies vied for stakes in the industries. Meyer, et al. 2007 (382-389) All of this began to showcase Mexico internationally as a country that was on the rise.

Unfortunately, the material wealth and abundance never trickled down to the people. All of this positive growth masked a dark side. As mentioned in a previous post, the mass expropriation of village lands led to an underclass of peones, agricultural and mine workers who were tied to their lands, paid meager wages, and could never escape a cycle of debt to their overlords. Because of this, trade unions began to grow in the early 1900s. Though often brutally repressed by the Díaz regime, popular unrest began to foment throughout the country, spearheaded by intellectuals such as Ricardo Flores Magón and even wealthy capitalists such as Francisco I. Madero. Critics argued that more aggressive economic and social reforms were necessary to avoid a revolution by the masses.

Features of the Porfiriato such as sham elections and vast patronage networks, administration of justice through force, press censorship and intimidation, and repression of any opposition, ultimately contributed to its downfall. In conjunction with a recession that hit Mexico hard in 1906-1907 and crop failures from 1907-1910, the Mexican people were largely unsatisfied with the regime. The opposition gradually began to organize and eventually forced the resignation of Porfirio Díaz on May 25, 1911.

We’ll discuss the events leading up to that in the coming days, as next time I explore in more depth the end of the Porfiriato and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. I hope that this post has been useful and has provided a good overview of a complicated era (Mexican history is filled with complicated eras!). As always, please like and share the post, and comment down below if you’d like to join the discussion. Until next time!

March 24 – 30, 2019 – Conservatism

Hi everyone and welcome back! This week’s post is going to be a little different. There will inevitably come times where there are no events to be found for a particular week, or maybe I have already written about it in the past. So I want to take these opportunities to delve more into a larger theme in Mexican history, something that is not as specific as one person or event. I will, however, try to link it to a previous or upcoming post so that it’s relevant.

In last week’s post, we discussed Benito Juárez as the leading figure in liberal politics in 19th-century Mexico. We went through a list of characteristics of and beliefs held by liberals during this period. This week, I want to continue talking about the conflict between liberals and conservatives, because the back-and-forth between them really defined politics in that era. So today we’re going to take a look at conservatism and what that meant for 19th-century Mexico.

Anastasio Bustamante, president
Anastasio Bustamante, 4th President of Mexico (1830-1832). AGN, Public domain.

Scholar José Luis Soberanes Fernández defines conservatism as: “the political ideology and social philosophy that privileges the status quo and looks to maintain established traditions and institutions.” Source, p. 70 Mexican historian Alfonso Noriega Cantú expands on this definition by adding that conservatism is: “the political view that opposes violent changes, that essentially respects tradition; but that accepts the evolutive transformation of society and not its immutability as traditionalism does.” Source, p. 3 Noriega makes a distinction here between conservatism and traditionalism: the former willing to accept change, but at a slower pace; the latter wanting to freeze time in the past, essentially. I’m not sure that I completely agree with this description, as it seems that that 19th-century conservatives were interested in keeping the Spanish colonial past intact (albeit with Mexican/criollo leaders in place of peninsular Spanish ones). Does anyone disagree with this? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

I do agree that conservatives were more of what Soberanes describes as, “counter-revolutionary,” a force for slowing change in a newly independent country which saw the rise of a radical faction (liberalism) that called for a break from the preexisting colonial order. p. 72

Let’s talk about what conservative thought in general actually entails. Political philosopher Russell Kirk identifies 6 main aspects of it:

  • Providentialism, the belief that society is structured by God. Political problems are also moral and religious ones.
  • Preference for tradition over idealism and utopianism.
  • Civilization requires an ordered social hierarchy and, therefore, inequality must exist.
  • Respect for private property as essential to freedom.
  • The need to govern according to cultural norms and traditions, not based on grand theories.
  • Gradual change, building up to something, rather than radical change which destroys. Source
Entrada del Generalísimo Dn. Agustín de Yturbide à Mexico el día 27. de Septiembre de 1821; anonymous, public domain.

Now let’s take a look at how these points actually existed in Mexican politics. These are some of the more specific characteristics of conservatism as they appeared in Mexico:

  • Conservatives were mainly the elite of society: large landowners, upper clergy, higher ranks of military and civil bureaucracy, wealthy merchants.
  • Wanted a strong central government.
  • Some wanted to replace the new federalist government with a monarchy.
  • Distrusted civil liberties such as freedom of speech, press, and religion.
  • Believed in the power of the Church – wanted to uphold Catholicism as the only official religion.
  • Generally uninterested in problems relating to indigenous people or other castas (mixed-race people), but sometimes claimed to continue the Spanish paternalist policy toward indigenous communities and often enjoyed their support. Source, p. 204
Lucas Alamán, notable conservative thinker and statesman (1830?), AGN, public domain.

Now I want to take a quick look at how conservatism (or centralism in the history texts) played out in Mexican politics. After the struggle for Independence from Spain ended in 1821, a new constitution was enacted in 1824 which was a mixture of liberal and conservative elements: separation of powers (liberal, similar to the US model); the Catholic Church as the official religion (conservative), etc. However, there still remained deep political divisions between the two sides.

Historian Michael P. Costeloe writes that by 1834-1835, conservative sentiment reached a head, with lots of propaganda-style newspaper editorials being published that decried a decline in traditional values, a dip in the economy, and attacks on personal security that only a centralist, conservative government could fix:

“A new form of government would bring back national unity and end the factional divisions and multi-party politics which had caused so much instability and administrative disruption. Law and order would be guaranteed with the streets and highways made safe for decent people. Above all, the traditional values of the family, respect for the nation’s once venerated institutions, the spirit of public service and public morality in general would be restored. The precepts of the only true faith would again be taught in schools and the corruption of youth by the modern heresies of the day stopped. Men of property would reoccupy their rightful position in the corridors of power and their presence would ensure that reforms when needed would be made without the radical upheaval of society and all the dangers of social and economic equality as preached by the demagogic, federalist sans culottes. The Church and the army would once again be the twin pillars of their new society, but not its masters.”

Michael P. Costeloe. “Federalism to Centralism in Mexico: The Conservative Case for Change, 1834-1835,” The Americas 45, No. 2 (Oct., 1988): 184. Source

This type of thinking paved the way for General Antonio López de Santa Anna to come into power in 1835 and remain influential for the next 22 years. Although he was not specifically a conservative, he did centralize the government, take control of the military, and repeal many of the liberal aspects of the 1824 Constitution in the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws).

Santa Anna
General Antonio López de Santa Anna, public domain.

Jumping ahead… later, while Benito Juárez was president in the 1850s, conservatives (including the church and the military) rose up against liberalism and took control of Mexico City during the War of the Reform, 1858-1861. Eventually, conservatives convinced France that the Mexican people were clamoring for a monarch, and, among other reasons, the French installed a Hapsburg monarch into power in Mexico in 1864, Maximilian I. This “French intervention” was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and in 1867 the monarchy collapsed, along with the conservative platform and any power they had once accrued. Juárez and the liberals regained control of the government at this point until 1872.

In conclusion, you can see that this back-and-forth between conservatives and liberals largely defined Mexican politics in the 19th-century, but was also extremely disruptive. Conservatives at the time were interested in maintaining power amongst the elite and aligning themselves with the military and the Church, at the expense of more European-style liberal politics which advocated a separation of church and state and a federalist government. They were “counter-revolutionary,” with an eye toward repealing liberal efforts at creating a more democratic society, but I do believe that they largely wanted to maintain the “traditional” colonial way of life that they enjoyed under Spanish rule.

As always, thank you for your readership, and I encourage you to delve more into the topic on your own. ¡Adiós!

(Shout-out to my husband for help with Spanish translation.)

March 21, 2019 – Birth of Benito Juárez

Welcome back to my little corner of the internet! It’s been a while since my first post… life happened and I decided to put this project on hiatus for a while, but now I am recommitted to getting it going again.

March 18, 2019 is the celebration of the Natalicio de Benito Juárez (the birth of Benito Juárez). Although he was actually born on the 21st of March, 1806, this legal holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of each March.  Benito Juárez served as President of Mexico from 1858-1872, excluding a lapse between 1864-1867. A popular and deeply influential President, his legacy is still celebrated in México, especially through the dedication of streets, towns, monuments, and even currency (his face is on the 20 peso banknote) in his name.


Statue of Benito Juárez @ Secretaria de Educación Pública, CDMX. Photo: Candace Garcia, 2015.

He is perhaps best known as the face of Mexican Liberalism, part of a larger movement occurring throughout Latin America and Europe in the 19th century. Juárez presided over a period in México known as La Reforma, where a series of liberal reforms were enacted that drastically changed the official relationship between church and state, as well as land tenure laws that would cause severe disruption in the country.

This is admittedly a huge topic – many scholars have devoted time to Mexican liberalism and La Reforma. Here, my goal is to present a brief overview of what 19th-century liberalism was and Juárez’s legacy (in a nutshell).

In order to understand Juárez and his period of history, it is critical to define the term liberalism. In 19th century Mexico, it consisted of many of the following elements:

  • Appealed to middle class groups, small landowners, lawyers, professionals, aspiring mixed-race people.
  • Favored a federalist government, inspired by US & European models.
  • Guarantees of individual rights.
  • End to special privileges for the military and church.
  • Confiscation of church property.
  • Abolition of slavery.
  • A disregard for the communal lifestyles of indigenous people; saw this as an impediment to modernization. In Mexico, this resulted in the breaking up of ejidos (communal lands).

(Keen, Benjamin, and Keith Haynes. A History of Latin America. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013.)

Benito Juárez, public domain.

From the 1830s through to the time of Benito Juárez, there was a constant struggle between liberals and conservatives, the usually upper-class sector of the population who supported the church and a strong central government. Benito Juárez, a lawyer and governor in the state of Oaxaca, was a leader of the Liberal Party and also of Zapotec indigenous origin. With his rise, he represented a new demographic entering onto the national political scene, yet it remains a complex relationship because he favored the breaking up and sale of indigenous lands through the Ley Lerdo in 1856.

His Presidency ushered in a period known as La Reforma. To put it simply, Juárez oversaw the implementation of several new liberal reforms during this time, the most important being:

  • Ley Lerdo (1856): a sweeping land reform that required all religious properties not in direct religious usage to be auctioned off. This is the law that also did the same for indigenous ejidos, breaking them up and auctioning them off, usually ending up in the hands of hacendados (hacienda owners), which furthered the creation of a landed elite.
  • Ley Juárez (1856): eliminated clerical and military privileges (fueros). This obviously angered the Church and the military.
  • Ley Iglesias (1857): required that Church-issued services such as birth and marriage certificates were to be handled by the state going forward. This expanded the bureaucracy of the state and stripped more power from the Church.

Benito Juárez was President through the War of Reform or Three Years’ War (1857-1860) and was temporarily displaced during the French Intervention of Mexico by Maxmilian I (1861-1867), a European Hapsburg royal who briefly reigned as emperor in Mexico. Juárez remained in office until his death in 1872.

Monument to Benito Juárez, Alameda Central, CDMX.
(Hemiciclo a Juárez, Avenida Juárez). Photo: Hajor, 2004.

His legacy stands as a major liberal innovator during a turbulent period in the 19th-century: he was anti-clerical, breaking up many of the privileges of the Church; he subjected the military to government control; and he passed land reforms that changed the landscape of the Mexican countryside (literally). As previously mentioned, he remains a national hero in México and his likeness can be found everywhere.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. I want to inspire you to take time to learn more about Benito Juárez and La Reforma. It’s a fascinating, complex, and important period of Mexican history.

If you have book or film suggestions for this period, or if there is a topic you would like to see discussed in the future, please comment below.