José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz (15 September 1830 – 2 July 1915) was a dictator who ruled Mexico from 1876 until 1911 (with the exception of one single four-year period).
Diaz was born in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. He was a Mestizo, of Mixtec Indian and Spanish ancestry. An army officer with humble rural roots, he became something of a hero due to his participation in the war against the French, where he won several important victories. He led the cavalry in the celebrated Battle of Puebla of 1862.
In 1876 he overthrew the government of President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Initially, he advanced a platform of reform, using the slogan "No Re-election" (for the President). After appointing himself President on November 29, 1876, he served one term and then dutifully stepped down in favor of Manuel González, one of his underlings. The four-year period that followed was marked by corruption and official incompetence, so that when Díaz stepped up in the next election he was a welcome replacement, and there was no remembrance of his "No Re-election" slogan. In any case Díaz had the constitution amended, first to allow two terms in office, and then to remove all restrictions on re-elections.
He maintained power through manipulation of votes, but also through simple violence and assassination of his opponents, which as a result were very few. He was a cunning politician and knew very well how to manipulate people to his advantage. In 1899 he faced some small opposition from Bernardo Reyes, an official in his government, who decided to run for president after Díaz gave an interview in which he said he would allow the next election to be freely contested. In the end the attempt failed and Díaz forced Reyes into exile.
Díaz embarked on a program of modernization, attempting to bring Mexico up to the level of a modern state. His principal advisers were of a type called cientificos, akin to modern economists, because they espoused a program of "scientific" modernisation. These included the building of railroad and telegraph lines across the country, and the construction of factories in Mexico City. This resulted in the rise of an urban proletariat and the influx of foreign (principally United States) capital. The growing influence of U.S. businessmen, already a sore point in a Mexico that had lost much land to the United States, was a constant problem for Díaz. His modernisation program was also at odds with the owners of the large plantations (haciendas) that had spread across much of Mexico. These rich plantation owners wanted to maintain their existing feudal system (peonage), and were reluctant to transform into the capitalist economy Díaz was pushing towards because it meant competing in a global market and contending with the monetary influence of businessmen from the United States.
Though he wished to modernise the country, Díaz by no means opposed the existence of the haciendas, and in fact supported them strongly throughout his rule. He appointed sympathetic governors and allowed the plantation owners to proceed with a slow campaign of encroachment onto collectively-owned village land, and enforced such theft through his well-equipped rural police (rurales).
In 1910 elections were held. Francisco I. Madero ran against Díaz for president. Madero quickly gathered much popular support, but when the official results were announced by the government, Díaz was proclaimed to have been reelected almost unanimously, with Madero gathering only a minuscule number of votes. This massive electoral fraud aroused widespread anger. Madero called for revolt against Díaz, and the Mexican Revolution began. Díaz was forced from office and fled the country in 1911.
See also: History of Mexico