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Influence of Porfiriato on Mexico's History

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The Legacy of the Porfiriato

The period from the end of Mexico’s independence from Spain to the end of Porfirio Díaz’s last term in office, also known as the Porfiriato (1876-1910), represents a distinct political, economic, and international shift from the period post-independence (1821-1876). Just how multiculturalism and absolutism would affect Mexico in terms of its successes and failures during Spain’s colonization, the Porfiriato introduces to the Mexican state the elements that would allow Mexico to thrive, and would also ultimately pave Mexico’s path to revolution.

The Porfiriato represented a significant change compared to the previous first half century since Independence because Díaz turned political chaos into political stability, shifted Mexico from a mercantilist state to a robust capitalist nation, and witnessed international antagonism subside to international cooperation, albeit an imperialist conception of cooperation. This paper will describe the effects and changes that distinguish the Porfiriato from other eras and the repercussions this had for the Mexican state and the Mexican people.

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Possibly more important than the economic and international developments, the Porfiriato transformed the political scene of Mexico from one of never-ending chaos into a nation of political stability (Gonzales 2002, 5). This is evident with the establishment of a political bureaucracy and educated elite, the political hegemony of Porfirio Díaz, and the allowance of the Church to maintain a recognized and respected position (Gonzales 2002, 19).

From the establishment of New Spain and arrival of Spaniards in Mexico, Mexican inherited an absolutist lineage. This absolutist lineage was a remnant of Spain’s roots in Catholicism and European political theory. In this model, the king, conveniently located in Spain, would still have control of the political workings of New Spain. However, New Spain was so large a territory that the system of absolutism from a far was largely inefficient. Thus, New Spain established viceroys or vice kings to fill in for the king back in Spain.

Though this practice seems like a logical extension from the absolutism of the day, it hindered Mexico politically and economically. This system of political rule and reign meant that the politicians within New Spain up to Independence were politically incompetent. They were used to taking their lead and direction from a King, a Viceroy, anyone with absolute, uncontested power. This also meant that citizens of New Spain, and thus Mexico, would have to adjust to the idea of individual and citizen participation in political affairs of the state.

Moreover, the Porfiriato represents a political development in Mexico because it initiated the turn to positivism (Gonzales 2002, 26). Positivism is most clearly explained by the political slogan of Porfirio Díaz’s presidency, “Order is Progress.” Positivism, in a general, not political sense, was the zeitgeist of the 19th century where finding natural laws to understand how the universe worked would lead to increased order and faster progress of societies. In a political and social sense, the more stable a leader’s society, the faster progress will happen. To initiate this type of order and progress in Mexican politics, Díaz led the creation of the National Preparatory School. The National Preparatory School provided a training ground for competent and skilled government officials. The goal of the National Preparatory School was to find the best and brightest students and turn them into the nations leaders. The Porfiriato is different from the decades after Independence because it led to an increase in the amount of politically skilled leaders that would ultimately develop the country and stabilize Mexico so that economic advancement could occur (Gonzales 2002, 10).

Furthermore, the Porfiriato established “political peace” and continuity (Gonzales 2002, 19). Prior to the constitution, Mexico has experienced the rule and regulations of two different constitutions, along with minor adjustments, amendments, and plans in the meantime. The two most notable of these constitutions was the Constitution of 1824 and the Constitution of 1857. In brief, the Constitution of 1824 reconciled the struggle between the liberals/federalistas and conservatives/centralistas regarding the nature of the Republic and the extent of executive, legislative, judicial power, and Church power (Gonzales 2002, 7-8). The Constitution of 1857 called for individual freedoms and rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the institutionalization of the Catholic Church and education (Gonzales 2002, 162-163).

This period of Mexican development before the Porfiriato represented a chaotic and politically disparate time in Mexican history. This period of Mexican history can be seen as a government failure because the ideas, proposals, and policies within the country were not unified as a whole meaning that the country was susceptible to territorial losses, small skirmishes, political collapse, and economic downfall.

The Porfiriato represents a shift in the political milieu of Mexico because of the political continuity of the Porfiriato. Though Díaz ran against Benito Juarez and Sebastián Lerdo Tejada with the slogan of “no-election,” Díaz continued to rule in Mexico for thirty years because he proposed a constitutional amendment that removed all restrictions on re-election (Gonzales 2002, 12). Furthermore, this political continuity evolved into political hegemony. Even during breaks in his time in office, Díaz continued to control and rule through government puppets like Manuel González Flores who served under Díaz when he was a general in the army. In retrospect, the “no re-election” revision and Díaz’s extended reign shifted his image from charismatic leader to benevolent dictator (Gonzales 2002, 15). Nonetheless, Díaz’s highly ordered and extended rule was possibly exactly what the Mexican state needed to induce political stability.

Secondly, the Porfiriato represents a significant change from the previous first half century since Independence because Díaz’s policies and administration helped to transition Mexico from a mercantilist economy to a robust capitalist nation worthy of foreign interests. Evidence for this transition is found in the monetary policies of Díaz administration and the shifting of wealth within the country.

In order to fund the numerous skirmishes with the Americans across the border and to jump start private capital, Mexico needed help from foreign investors. The Porfiriato marks a significant change in the economic development of Mexico because it largely altered the economic focus of the country. Prior to the Porfiriato, Mexico heavily relied on its agricultural and mineral resources, in particular the hacendados (Gonzales 2002, 10). Though Díaz did favor the interests of these wealthy, landed gentlemen, he slowly shifted the country’s focus momentarily away from agriculture towards industry. To make both business and travel much easier, the Díaz administration initiated an audacious infrastructure project. The very first railroad line was completed the year Díaz came to power. More specifically, “24,560 kilometers [over 15,000 miles] of track were laid between 1880 and 1910” (Gonzales 2002, 21). This economic development is significant because it linked Mexico economically and efficiently to the United States. It also linked the seaports with the Mexican hinterland, cutting down on costs by as much as “90 percent” and increasing profit (Gonzales 2002, 23).

Perhaps the most controversial of Díaz economic policies was his practice of not granting Mexican firms “the same generous concessions and tax breaks that he routinely gave to foreign cooperation” (Gonzales 2002, 42). Regardless of foreign control and investment in Mexico being at its peak during the Porfiriato, Mexico still maintained a “particularly strong” economic portfolio or various sources of revenue from agricultural to infrastructural and technological (Gonzales 2002, 62). But what were the repercussions of such projects? How did it change Mexico? Along with “commercial and industrial growth,” the Porfiriato also encouraged the growth of the middle class (Gonzales 2002, 62). Thus, the Porfiriato helped move Mexico from the mercantilist period of regulated government trade to free trade between private enterprises, mostly led by the also growing wealthy, educated elites (Gonzales 2002, 62). Remarkably, Díaz managed in 1894 to retire all Mexican debt, create a balance budget, and set up trade consulates in multiple countries. Most importantly, the Porfiriato is significant to Mexico’s development in reference to the post-Independence age because it allowed Mexico produce a “modern capitalist economy” (Gonzales 2002, 24).

Finally, yet importantly, the Porfiriato is significant because it witnessed and allowed the international antagonism of the Age of Revolution to give way to the international cooperation of the Porfiriato. Though this international “cooperation” was one of imperialist goals and nature, it still allowed Mexico to thrive more than without the interests of foreign nations.

Tracing the international developments through Mexican Independence to the end of the Porfiriato is a much harder task than analyzing the changes in politics and economics because knowledge of both domestic and international events and trends is necessary. Possibly the most important of these international trends is the end of the Age of Revolution. The Age of Revolution encompasses the entire globe from the thirteen New England colonies to revolt in Spanish and Portuguese land holdings to revolution across the Atlantic in France. During the Age of Revolution, colonies, protectorates, and foreign held-territories began to revolt against colonialist domination. The same occurred in Mexico during her Independence from Spain led by Miguel Hidalgo.

The Age of Revolution represents a distinct shift to the Age of the Republic. The Age of the Republic takes many cues from the Renaissance and more importantly from the Enlightenment. This new age of political theory and practice is also exemplified by Mexico’s economic connection to multiple foreign states such as the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany. Mexico’s role as the host in these parasitic relationships also tells us something about international development. These relationships show us that the international trend was shifting from one of colonialism to a modified version: economic imperialism. This is evident by the control and domination of the mining and railroad industry within Mexico by foreign states. For example, 80% of the railroads were built and operated by American companies while 15% were controlled by Great Britain.

Moreover, Díaz’s naivety to the foreign interference in Mexican economics, though it fell within the imperialist trend of the century, was a “fundamental weakness in Díaz’s blueprint for economic development” (Gonzales 2002, 65). Díaz’s “generous government support for foreign enterprises created an attractive investment climate and encouraged development” at the expense of the Mexican domestic economy (Gonzales 2002, 65). Due to this faulty practice, Mexico would continue on a trajectory similar to many Latin American, African, and Asian countries: economic dependence on a more developed nation.

Historians have long debated the applicability of Great Man history and the zeitgeist of the era. The arrival of Porfirio Díaz and his administration’s policies gives credence to the Great Man theory of history. The Porfiriato shifted Mexico from political disarray to political coherence, from obsolete mercantilism to robust capitalism, and from colonial attachments to more economic and political self-determination. Though it did sow the seeds for revolution, explicitly the treatment of Amerindian peoples, unequal income distribution, and preferential treatment to foreign business, the Porfiriato also increased Mexico’s political and economic potential to become a powerful, industrialized nation.


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