The Making of the Porfiriato
Porfirio Díaz controlled the destiny of the Mexican nation for a third of a century. These were interesting and vital years in the entire western world. Innovation characterized the era—in technology, political and economic systems, social values, and artistic expression. Otto von Bismarck transformed the German states into a nation. William Gladstone introduced England to a new kind of liberalism. The leading powers of Europe partitioned Africa unto themselves. The United States emerged as a world power, and Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—the last remnants of its once-glorious empire. Russia experienced a revolution that, though abortive, presaged things to come in 1917. Émile Zola and Anatole France came heroically to the defense of Captain Dreyfus, and Pope Leo XIII enunciated Rerum Novarum, proclaiming that employees should be treated more as men than as tools. Thomas Hardy and Thomas Mann revolutionized the world of fiction, while Renoir and Monet did the same for art. But even in a world of profound change, Porfirio Díaz’s Mexico must be considered remarkable.
When Díaz assumed control of Mexico in 1876, the country had scarcely been touched by the scientific, technological, and industrial revolutions or the material conquests of the nineteenth century. The benefits and comforts of civilization, as they were found in Mexico, were confined to a handful of the larger cities. While much of western Europe and the United States had been transformed in the last fifty years, Mexico had languished, less out of inertia than because of the intermittent chaos and resultant exhaustion. In the fifty-five years since Independence the presidency had actually changed hands seventy-five times. For every constitutional president there had been four interim, provisional, or irregular presidents. Continuity of policy had been clearly impossible.