The term Pax Porfiriato derives from the Pax Romana of Imperial Rome; Pax meaning peace. During the rule of Porfirio Diaz, 1887-1911, Mexico saw a period of peace and economic growth. However, this came at the cost of living in a quasi-republican dictatorship. Liberals living during the reign Diaz, “attributed anarchy to the colonial past in order to claim credit for bringing order and progress to the country.”
While this belief was ideologically motivated, it prompts the question of how societies must balance order and liberty to ensure peace. The Pax Porfiriato achieved balance in its military, governmental, social, and economic spheres as social groups either prospered or fell into obscurity at the cost of order. However, the balance of the Diaz regime was not sufficient to prevent revolution upon his death.
A characteristic that distinguishes the Pax Porfiriato from the years of independence that came before is the centralization of government. In general, Mexico transformed from a state with autonomous, and many times rebellious, regions into a centralized state with a powerful federal government that could override regional opposition. Regionalism was popular among the people who trusted their local municipality more so than federal government. However, the liberty of local autonomy ran the danger of rebellion and civil war such as that which plague the early years of Mexico’s independence.
In the Pax Porfiriato, direct democracy was much in practice at the local level, elections of governors for instance, “But more traditional and conservative forms of suffrage were maintained at the other levels of government.” In particular, the Mexican state centralized power around Porfirio Diaz as dictator. However, Diaz excelled in balancing the extremes of regionalism and centralization never allowing power to emanate from one level of government or from one political party; by playing these forces against each other Diaz ensured the state would depend on him but not itself.
Unlike other Latin American countries, the Mexican military was smaller because “Diaz weakened the influence of the army by establishing other para-military forces which were frequently of a better calibre than the army.” The difference between federal and axillary troops reflected politics as the national guard was more popular among the lower classes who associated federal power with Mexico’s ruling elite.
To prevent regional dissidence, however, Diaz replaced local strongmen with military commanders without any roots in the region who were loyal to Diaz. In this way Diaz could ensure that any usurper in the military would not be able to raise an army large enough to defeat the combine para-military forces, who had local support and were under the command of those loyal to Diaz. As a result of these conditions, Mexico saw a period of stability during Diaz’s rule that allowed for economic growth and development.
A persistent problem Mexico faced before the Pax Porfiriato was occupation and military intervention by a foreign power. Wars with Spain, France, and the United States fundamentally shaped Mexico’s culture, economics, and territory. Mexico as a nation has had its liberty deprived by the force of foreign powers. In the Pax Porfiriato, Mexico avoided war with foreign powers by opening itself up to foreign investment. Early in his regime, Diaz began to court investors from the U.S. and other nations who, because of a shared financial interest, would be unlikely to invade Mexico.
With foreign money came the growth of industry. Railroads, textile plants, mining, and other new forms of industry transformed Mexican society and resulted in a new proletariat class of workers and a new national elite called cientificos who become wealthy by acting as intermediaries for foreign investors. However, economic success was not uniform and varied from region to region. While some found freedom from poverty from Mexico’s industrial revolution others faced greater oppression.
In its history, Mexico has seen a large gap between an elite ruling class and the rest of society; from the pre-colonial period and its ruling Aztec families over local villages, to the colonial period of Spaniard rule over the natives, and after independence with the rise of a new liberal elite. When society is comprised of distinct groups their perceptions of liberty often contradict one another, which leads to class conflict and disorder.
In the Pax Porfiriato, Diaz found ways to placate the desires of the many groups and factions while at the same time limiting their ability to overrule the authority of his office. Diaz abandoned the anti-clericalism of the previous Lerdo administration, while keeping previous policies that restricted the Church’s influence and power. The Church found other ways to acquire wealth and maintain its relationship with followers in the Pax Porfiriato.
The power of the cientificos was checked by Diaz through allotting power to wealthy landowners playing them against the cientificos. However, Diaz would ultimate grant the new elite more power towards the end of his regime. The middle class were denied many freedoms, such as freedom of expression and representation, but their wealth was increasing in the Pax Porfirio which made them content.
The working class found jobs and opportunity in new industry, but they did not have the right to unionize and made less than workers imported form the United States. Finally, peasants living in the communal villages fared the worst as their land was taken away. When Mexico gained independence from Spain about 40 percent of all land in central and southern Mexico belonged to communal villages, at the end of the Pax Porfiriato in 1911 the amount of land fell to 5 percent.
The fatal flaw of the Pax Porfiriato was that its survival depended on the longevity of a mortal man. Diaz was adept at using divide and conquer strategies to ensure no one group achieved influence over others. But what would happened to the system he created when he was no longer there to anchor its stability? One has to question whether the revolution of 1911 was inevitable because of Mexican government’s dependence on the survival of one man for its own.
It is true that many prospered in the Pax Porfiriato but nearly all were denied a share of the power that Diaz horded for himself. The power vacuum left after his death resulted in the collapse of order into revolution. Diaz’s inability to ensure a peaceful transfer of power after his death indicates that the Pax Porfiriato ultimately failed to find the correct balance between order and liberty.
Chavez, Alicia Hernandez. Mexico: A Brief History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Gilbert & Henderson. The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2002.
Bethell, Leslie. Mexico Since Independence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1991.
-  Alicia Hernandez Chavez, Mexico: A Brief History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 98.
-  Ibid, 187.
-  Leslie Bethell, Mexico Since Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 85.
-  Chavez, Mexico, 190.
-  Bethell, Since Independence, 83.
-  Ibid, 69.
-  Ibid, 86.
-  Ibid, 94.