Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Porfirio Díaz rebels

Today is the 180th anniversary of the birth of Porfirio Díaz, a giant, if somewhat controversial, figure in Mexico’s history. He ruled the country for the best part of 30 years, but most of it as a tyrant, and was only brought down by the Mexican Revolution (which started 100 years ago). Although there are no published diaries (at least in English) written by Díaz, one biography, freely available online, quotes extensively from such diaries. It also worth noting another anniversary - tomorrow - the bicentenary of the start of the Mexican War of Independence.

Descended from both Mixtec Indians and Spaniards, José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori was born on 15 September 1830 in Oaxaca to parents who kept a small inn. However, his father died three years later, and the young Díaz learned carpentry and shoemaking outside of school to help with the family income. At 13, his mother sent him to study for the priesthood, but at 16 he joined a local militia.

He fought with the Mexican army against the US in the mid-1840s, and then, with the encouragement of the Liberal Benito Juárez (who went on to become President in 1858), he studied law for a while. In 1854, he became something of a rebel helping an imprisoned friend, and voting against the President (see below). He went into hiding, but benefited from much support in the Oaxaca region. By 1856, he had been promoted to captain in the state national guard. Subsequently, he had a distinguished military career, fighting in the War of Reform and then against the French in the 1860s.

After returning to Oaxaca, he again became dissatisfied with the governing regime and led protests and then an unsuccessful revolt in 1876. He fled to the US but returned six months later to roundly defeat the government at the Battle of Tecoac. In May 1877, he was elected President. Díaz’s first term in office was noted for his efforts at building a power base and his suppressing of revolts. Having supported a no re-election policy earlier, though, Díaz decided not to stand for a second term himself, but instead hand-picked his successor. It was a period of administrative confusion, and Mexicans re-elected Díaz to the Presidency again in 1884. Thereafter, he didn’t relinquish power for a quarter of a century. Encyclopaedia Britannica says during this time he ‘produced an orderly and systematic government with a military spirit. He successfully consolidated the nation by what many referred to as a centralised tyranny.’

During the years Díaz ruled Mexico, known as the Porfiriato, foreign investment was strongly encouraged, and led to much new infrastructure and enterprise. However, the wealth created in these decades was not fairly distributed with most of it going abroad or into the hands of very few rich Mexicans. By 16 September 1910, the date usually given for the start of the Mexican Revolution, the economy had declined, and national revenues were sinking. Moreover, rural poverty, strikes and discontent were endemic. Díaz finally resigned in May 1911, and went into exile in France, where he died in 1915. He married twice, and had three children. For more biographical information see Latin America Studies or Wikipedia.

Although there’s no trace of any published diaries in English, there is one biography of Díaz, by Ethel Tweedie (often referred to as Mrs Alec Tweedie), published in 1906 which, apparently, makes extensive use of Díaz’s diaries. Ethel Tweedie was rather an extraordinary woman who travelled widely and found a ready market for her jolly travel books such as Girl’s Ride in Iceland (1889), A Winter Jaunt to Norway (1894) and Through Finland in Carts (1897). Journeying further away, she went to China, Russia, the US and spent considerable time in Mexico, where she became friendly with Díaz’s wife who helped win her husband’s endorsement for a biography.

This was published in 1906 by John Lane Company in New York as The Maker of Modern Mexico, Porfirio Díaz, and by Hurst and Blackett in London as Porfirio Díaz, Seven Times President of Mexico. Both (identical) versions are freely available at Internet Archive.

Tweedie says in her introduction that ‘General Díaz honoured me by handing over long extracts from his diaries’, and ‘no part of this diary has hitherto been published’. Somewhat obsequiously, she also says this: ‘That President Díaz was the greatest man of the nineteenth century is a strong assertion, but those who read these pages will, I hope, think so too.’

Unfortunately, in her biography, Tweedie never gives any dates for the many ‘diary’ extracts she quotes. Also, many of the extracts read as though they were written in retrospect. Nevertheless, here are some of those ‘diary’ extracts.

In 1854, Don Marcos Pérez, a former teacher of Díaz, was arrested and imprisoned in a turret of the Convent of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. Díaz explains how, aided by his brother Félix, he managed to enter his friend’s cell:

‘The window was closed, and in the upper part of the solid shutters were two small openings, each with an iron cross in the centre. In the door of the turret was a small wicket, rather lower than the full height of a man, through which the sentinel, stooping down, could from time to time watch his captive. There was a second outer door, and in the passage between the two were the sentinel and a corporal. This second door was, like the first, closed and locked. The guard consisted of fifty men, under a captain and a superior officer. All were perfectly sure that the prisoner could not effect an escape, for his cell had only the one door and the windows. When I had been lowered by a rope to the window and the sentinel showed himself at the little wicket, I had to stoop down, sliding below the sill as far as possible so as not to be seen. Thus I hung, suspended by the rope which my brother Félix held from the top of the roof. In spite of many difficulties and dangers, we succeeded on three separate nights in speaking with Don Marcos Pérez.’

Having been able to communicate with Pérez, Tweedie says, Díaz was then able to help obtain his freedom.

In that same year, in 1854, Antonio López de Santa Anna (General Santa Anna) was in the last of his eleven terms of office. He had become an army cadet in 1810, just a few months before the War of Independence - generally considered to have started on 16 September. He first became President in 1833. Here is Díaz explaining how he came to oppose the President that year.

‘The dictatorial, retrograde politics of General Santa Anna, and his persecution of the Liberals, occasioned a reaction in the country . . . The Revolution was headed by General Don Juan Alvarez, a full-blooded Indian, who was one of the few leaders of the War of Independence still surviving. Soon after its inception Santa Anna, imitating the example of Louis Napoleon - whom he flattered himself he resembled in more ways than one - sought to obtain a demonstration in his favour, and ordered a popular vote to be taken which should decide who should exercise the supreme Dictatorship.

I was filling the post of Professor of Law, when the Director of the Institute . . . called all the professors together on the 1st of December, 1854, to vote in a body for Santa Anna. I refused, thinking that during the voting there would be some scandalous incident which would justify recourse to arms, and hoping that I might perhaps find an opportunity to be of use. This, however, was impossible, since the Government had posted, a strong guard of troops in the plaza, and had even brought up cannon. I went to the porch of the Palace where the votes were being taken.

General Don Ignacio Martinez Pinillos, who was Governor and Military Commander of the State of Oaxaca - or Department, as it was then called - was presiding at the poll within the Palace.

The head of the division in which I lived, Don Serapio Maldonado, presented himself, saying that he voted on behalf of various individuals who were residents in his division for the continuance in power as Supreme Dictator of General Santa Anna. Then it was I appealed to the President myself to discount my vote from the number, because I did not wish to exercise the right of voting.

At that moment the academical body of the Institute arrived, and all the professors voted in favour of Santa Anna, and gave their respective signatures to the roll.

When this was done the Licentiate Don Francisco S. de Enciso, who was Professor of Civil Law, asked me if I was fully determined not to vote. I answered in the same terms in which I had excused myself to General Martfnez Pinillos, saying that voting was a right which I was free to exercise or not.

‘Yes,’ answered Enciso, ‘and one does not vote when one is afraid!’

‘This reproach burnt into me like fire, and made me seize the pen which was again proffered me. Pushing my way between the electors I passed up the room and recorded my vote, not for Santa Anna, but in favour of General Don Juan Alvarez, who figured as chief of the Revolutionary movement of Ayutla.’

This unexpected incident, Tweedie says, aroused general consternation and uproar. In the excitement of the moment young Diaz passed out of the voting hall unobserved, and disappeared in the crowd in the plaza of Oaxaca. Orders were immediately issued for his pursuit and arrest. In the meantime he had grasped a rifle, mounted his horse, and, accompanied by another resolute companion, got away, riding down those who would have barred his passage.

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