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History, The Diaz Years

Porfiriato, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, debt peonage, Ricardo Flores Magon, Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz projected a statesmanlike image of calm strength that reassured the country. He accepted the notion that Mexicoís future depended upon modernization and foreign investment. Completion of the nationís railway network and its links with that of the United States received considerable attention, and Diaz did everything in his power to attract foreign investment. In 1888 Mexico negotiated a debt consolidation plan that opened the way for a flood of foreign money to pour into the nation. The country opened up new markets for its mineral and agricultural products and brought new land under cultivation. Diaz also laid the foundation for industrial development.

Concentration of land ownership during the Porfiriato, coupled with the loss of communal holdings, made it difficult for people to practice subsistence agriculture. Diaz favored the rich owners of large estates, increasing their properties by allowing them to absorb communal lands that belonged to Native Americans. Many landless peasants fell into debt peonage, a system of economic servitude in which workers became indebted to their employers for both money and supplies and were forced to labor in mines or plantations until the debt was paid. Sometimes the debt was handed down from generation to generation, forcing the children of indebted laborers to work to pay off their parentsí debts. By 1910 some 90 percent of the rural inhabitants of central Mexico were landless.

During the Porfiriato a two-tier society emerged, as those able to take advantage of modernization became rich and the poor sank further into poverty. As many rural inhabitants and Native Americans lost land to large commercial interests, agricultural workers failed to secure a reasonable share of the nationís growing wealth. Large operations, intent on achieving the most production at the lowest cost, kept wages low. Most employees had no paid holidays, sick leave, or industrial accident insurance. This started to change in 1904, when legislation began to address the problems.

Real wages relative to purchasing power declined approximately 20 percent in Mexico between 1876 and 1910. Moreover, agricultural production for internal consumption dropped as agricultural exports reduced food stocks. Corn and beans, the core of the lower-class diet, had to be imported. Sporadic food riots occurred throughout the country. In 1905 the government sold food at subsidized prices, and in 1909 it opened 50 subsidized food stores in Mexico City.

Unbalanced economic progress was one problem that marred the Porfiriato, but there were others. Diaz gave insufficient attention to social needs, paying little attention to education for the people. He also favored the church, ignoring the secularization policy of 1859. Finally, he failed to modernize the political system, allowing regional elites to control the countryís economic and political affairs. Although elections were held at all levels of government, they were generally meaningless. Only handpicked candidates were allowed to win, and the president appointed his loyal friends to political offices throughout the country.

Discontent and a spirit of revolt increased throughout Mexico. Many working-class Mexicans became sympathetic to the ideas of people such as Ricardo Flores Magon, a journalist and labor activist who founded the newspaper Regeneracion in 1900 to oppose the Diaz dictatorship. The paper was shut down the next year and Flores Magon was arrested. He continued to criticize the tyranny of the government in other newspapers and was eventually banned from publishing in Mexico; in 1904 he renewed publication of Regeneracion from Texas. Flores Magonís attacks on the Diaz regime in turn influenced other radical reformers such as Emiliano Zapata, in the state of Morelos, and Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Yucatan.

Aware of the growing discontent, Diaz announced in 1908 that he would welcome an opposition candidate in the 1910 election. The candidate put forward by a liberal group was Francisco Indalecio Madero. However, Diaz had Madero arrested and Diaz won the election. After Madero was freed, he fled to San Antonio, Texas, where he proclaimed a revolt. His first call to arms met with little response, but across the border in Mexico, small groups began to gather recruits and oppose the Diaz regime with violence. Madero soon found himself at the head of an unexpectedly successful movement. Diaz resigned on May 25, 1911, and went into permanent exile in Europe.

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