the brutal regime of porfirio diaz -- 5/29/18

Today's selection -- from Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution by Frank McLynn. Porfirio Díaz used bribes and murder to rule Mexico for three and a half decades, from 1876 until forced from office in the Mexican Revolution of 1911:

"In July 1872, ... Miguel Lerdo de Tejada succeeded Benito Juarez as president, but in 1876 made the perennial mistake of all nineteenth-century Mexican presidents and tried to overstay his welcome through re-election. [Mexican war hero Porfirio] Díaz raised an armed rebellion, fighting under the slogan 'effective suffrage and no re-election'. ... Díaz defeated [Lerdo] and entered Mexico City in triumph in November 1876.

"Díaz aimed at absolute power and he had learned enough under Juárez to know how to get it. He had worked out that, provided you conciliate certain key social groups, you can repress the rest. Díaz offered deals to landowners, generals, local elites, foreign capitalists, sections of the middle class and even powerful bandit leaders; the rest he killed or cowed. He was convinced that every man had his price and, when confronted by a recalcitrant politician or general, always tried bribery first; he liked to cite a peasant tag from his childhood, illustrating his base view of human nature: 'This rooster wants corn.' If bribery failed, he turned to murder. This was Díaz's famous pan o palo system -- bread or the club. He made it clear that he wanted no opposition, either in presidential elections or elsewhere. Two generals, García de la Cadena and Juan Corona, allowed their names to go forward as presidential hopefuls only to be mysteriously murdered. It became known that sudden death awaited all who opposed don Porfirio.

Porfirio Díaz and his wife, Carmen Romero Rubio, with other members of the Porfirian ruling faction

"Usually, however, there was no need for extreme measures, for money did the trick; as Díaz, in another of his farmyard saws, put it: 'A dog with a bone in its mouth neither kills nor steals.' Diaz quickly built up a hierarchy of political influence, with himself at the top, then the twenty­-seven state governors he appointed, followed by 300 jefes políticos (local political bosses) and 1,800 mayors or municipal presidents. Díaz nominated representatives to the toothless Congress in Mexico City, sometimes accompanied by rigged elections, and controlled the Supreme Court by appointing placemen and stooges. He showed particular favouritism towards the men of his native state: out of 227 representatives he nominated in 1886 to comprise the paper tiger masquerading under the name of Congress, sixty-two came from Oaxaca.

"There was rigid government control of all aspects of education. The press Díaz dealt with by carrot and stick. The ley mordaza or gagging law, which he cunningly put on the statute book during the chaotic 'presidency' of Manuel González (see below) abolished the right to a jury trial for journalists guilty of 'libel' or 'sedition' and such guilt was established by the mere say-so of a single magistrate, inevitably a Díaz stooge.

"Newspapermen could also be jailed without trial if anyone reported their unpatriotic or seditious 'state of mind' or even their 'intentions' to the police. On the other hand, Díaz paid out generous subsidies to proprietors and editors, provided they reported the news as he wanted it reported. He even maintained the fiction of 'opposition' newspapers so that, at judicious intervals, they could be given the nod to destroy the reputation of anyone in the Army or politics Díaz thought was becoming too powerful. If the generous 'subsidies' did not work, Díaz sent in his gangs of thugs, known as the bravi, to smash up presses and newspaper offices or to provoke unwary editors into fatal duels. At the limit Diaz could silence any press critics by sentencing them to noisome tropical penitentiaries from which scarcely anyone returned alive. One intrepid editor, a one time Díaz supporter named Filomeno Mata, actually beat the odds by going to jail no less than thirty-four times during the Porfiriato.

"Díaz's next task was to perpetuate his rule. At first he trod carefully, mindful of the resonance of the 'no re-election' slogan in the Mexican unconscious. In 1880 he appeared to step aside, allowing Manuel González to become president. However, González was his creature and did his bidding in every respect. The years 1880-4 were notorious for government profligacy and financial incompetence, so that Mexicans in 1884 welcomed Díaz back as a saviour. This was a favourite Díaz ploy. If he spotted a man with ambition, he found a political bed of nails for him,
some post as governor where he would lose all reputation and credibility. By 1888 Diaz's grip on Mexico was so tight that he no longer needed the farce of proxies like Manuel Gonzalez. 'No re-election' was forgotten about, the constitution was amended in 1887 to allow a second successive term, and again in 1890 to allow an infinite series of successive presidencies by the same man; between 1884 and 1904 Díaz had himself re-elected six times (the other 'elections' were in 1888, 1892, 1896 and 1900).

"Díaz's regime was a repressive tyranny but he lacked the technology to impose a totalitarian dictatorship or police state. He did not seek to control every aspect of Mexican life and was relaxed about conflicts between local elites or powerful families within a state; his main concern was that no one should emerge who could contest his power at the centre. Díaz's rule was thus an intermittently coercive tyranny, whose chief outward sign was the rurales, the quasi-military mounted police force that patrolled the countryside. The rurales, uniformed in suede and armed with the latest Mauser rifles, were effectively above the law outside Mexico City and were much feared as a consequence. Their favourite method of dealing with opponents was through the ley fuga, or law for dealing with fugitives from justice: this allowed anyone to be shot dead who 'tried to escape'. The Houdini-like propensity of Mexicans was evidently high in the Díaz years, for over 10,000 people died under the ley fuga."



Frank McLynn


Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution


Basic Books


Copyright 2000 by Frank McLynn


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