The New Student's Reference Work/Diaz, Porfirio

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Porfirio Diaz

Diaz, Porfirio.  In 1877 it would have been unsafe for a well-dressed man to go about Mexico City unattended, while bandits infested the country-roads and robbed the mail-coaches.  Thirty years later there were 20,000 miles of railway, 40,000 miles of telegraph and 22,000 post-offices; the capital is lighted by electricity and noisy with steam-locomotives and trolley-cars; and Porfirio Diaz, “perpetual president” of the republic went about afoot or in his carriage.  A handsome man of middle height, he looks tall in that land of small men.  In 1911, when he resigned, he was in his 80th year, his hair and mustache were snow white, but with his erect, soldierly carriage, fresh color and keen, black eyes he appeared to be in the prime of life.  He had rounded out his seventh term or thirty-fourth year in the presidency, and had announced his intention of retiring.  But the Mexican people would not permit him to do so and he was re-elected June 26, 1910.

To the life of this extraordinary man history offers no parallel.  His career, his achievements and his position are unique.  Alone and unaided, with ability matched only by incorruptible patriotism, Porfirio Diaz transformed Mexico, lifted it from oblivion, rescued it from bankruptcy, brought order out of three centuries of chaos; won self-respect and the respect of the world for the people of Mexico from 300 years of degradation under Spanish rule.

In 1821 Mexico threw off the yoke of Spain and began its long struggle upward from poverty, ignorance and disorder.  In the midst of the turmoil Porfirio Diaz was born on September 15, 1830, in the tropical state of Oaxaca.  A typical Mexican of the poor class he was, and of mixed Spanish and native blood, for his grandmother was a Mixteco Indian.  His father dying when he was three years of age, the boy roamed the cactus-and-aloe-strewn desert, and often sat at camp-fires with soldiers—government troops or rebels as it happened.  At 17 he walked 250 miles to enlist in defense of his country in the Mexican War (1848), and saw half of Mexico’s territory signed away to the United States in the year (1849) that gold was discovered in California.

That war over, Diaz became a rebel against Santa Anna’s corrupt and oppressive rule.  For the next 25 years, in fact, a Mexican patriot had no choice but to be a rebel and outlaw, for the country was ruled successively by dictators, despoilers and invaders.  In 1862 President Juarez, thinking to relieve the impoverished land, suspended payment of the national debt to Great Britain, France and Spain.  The United States, then in the second year of the Civil War, was unable to resist the invasion of Mexico by 40,000 French troops and the establishment of the Austrian archduke Maximilian as emperor in Mexico City.  At the head of a patriot-army Diaz resisted French occupation.  He was wounded, imprisoned, was a fugitive and an exile, had his army scattered, was offered bribes to desert his cause; but he helped bring about the downfall of the alien empire.  The election of Juarez as president (1871) was the signal for a new revolution led by Diaz.  The year 1877 saw the hero of 50 battles installed president in Mexico City by a victorious army.

The fighting stopped immediately, for the first time in 60 years.  Mexico was told to go to work, live peaceably and pay her debts.  In theory the democratic form of government was preserved, but in practice the patriarchal was adopted.  Diaz became the fatherly ruler, guiding and restraining.  The people were poor and ignorant, the land devastated, perishing.  After two generations of treachery, self-seeking and strife, education, industry, civic honesty and peace must slowly build up the land and people.  Diaz stamped out rebellion relentlessly.  It was years before the world understood his lofty patriotism.  It was expected that he would declare himself dictator and then emperor.  Rooted deep in the affections of the people, he could have worn a crown.  Instead, he cut his official salary to $15,000 a year, and shamed wealthy officials from accepting any salary at all.

When Diaz became president in 1877, Mexico had about 9,000,000 people, of whom 8,000,000 or more were ignorant, poverty-stricken peons.  To-day there are 15,000,000 people with a large middle class of public-spirited citizens capable of voting intelligently.  Of railroads it had 500 miles, to-day 19,000, of which 10,000 are partially owned by the government.  The revenues of $15,000,000 have been increased to $120,000,000 with a constant decrease in taxes.  Thirty years ago Mexico had no credit.  To-day it has a bonded debt of $200,000,000 and a surplus of $78,000,000.  Its debt doubled by depreciation of silver, it adopted the gold standard and met its obligations.  The sum of $12,500,000 has been spent on Vera Cruz harbor and $30,000,000 on the National Railway and on two harbors on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  Imports and exports have grown from $18,000,000 to $248,000,000.  Foreign capital to the extent of $1,200,000,000 has been invested in Mexican mines, railways, factories and plantations, and $200,000,000 of new money are pouring in every year.  Public education has been established, manufacturing and trade are on the increase.  The revenues were honestly collected and expended.  There have been no public scandals.  The uncrowned king of this republic has no private fortune.  He lived on his salary of $25,000 a year, in a modest house in the city or in Chapultepec Castle, in simpler style than do many citizens.  Once, when Diaz was reported to be seriously sick, Mexican bonds fell several points.  Not long after the inauguration of Diaz in December, 1910, there appeared evidences of popular unrest, and early in 1911 there came open revolt under the leadership of Francisco I. Madero.  Demands for reforms and broader exercise of popular rights were met by sweeping concessions from Diaz and his cabinet, but still the revolt grew.  There was fighting at different points in the Republic, chiefly in the north.  At length, rather than see his country deluged in war, Diaz resigned his office as president, and on May 31 he sailed from Vera Cruz for Europe, an exile from the land he had so greatly developed and enriched.  (See Mexico.)