Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.
Of all the colorful figures that populate Mexican history, few are more colorful than Porfirio Diaz. The scion of a devout Catholic family with ambitions to become a priest, he left the seminary to volunteer for service in 1846 in the Mexican War. Finding life congenial as a soldier, he never returned to the seminary. In 1846 he first met Benito Juarez and became a Liberal under his example and influence. His career until he became President intermingled politics with the military, and he served in both the Reform War and the struggle against the French, in which he became one of the chief commanders of President Juarez. He came to the Presidency in 1877 after leading a successful rebellion, one of several rebellions he led during his career. He would in effect rule Mexico until the Mexican Revolution in 1910, a period known as the Porfiriato. Mingling corruption with brute force, Diaz gave Mexico an authoritarian government that spurred rapid economic development. Diaz remained officially an anti-clerical Liberal, but privately he was a Catholic, and under his regime the anti-clerical laws were largely a dead letter. After the chaos that was the hallmark of Mexico in the Nineteenth Century, Diaz gave the country stability and peace. He was a dictator but a shrewd, competent one, skillful at balancing factions and always aware that public opinion was perhaps more important in a dictatorship than in a republic. In many ways he strikes me as a precursor of Francisco Franco, although the differences in the regimes they led are as pronounced as the similarities.
Most Americans, if they recall him at all, remember his quip about God and the United States. Diaz did his best to ensure good relations with the Colossus of the North and welcomed American investment. It was therefore not strange that he was the first Mexican President to meet with his American counterpart. The meeting between Diaz and President Taft occurred on October 16, 1909 in El Paso and Ciudad Rodriguez, with the Presidents meeting first in the US and then in Mexico. Diaz wanted the meeting to show American support prior to his eighth run for President and Taft hoped to ensure the security of US private investment in Mexico and to aid in boundary negotiations between the two nations. By all accounts it was a pleasant meeting and the two men hit it off.
However, if Diaz thought the meeting would aid him in his latest fraudulent election, he was mistaken. Like most dictators, Diaz simply would not relinquish power. His continuing to hold on to power in his eighties was intolerable to many factions within Mexico, and when the farcical 1910 presidential election results were announced, the chaotic and incredibly violent Mexican Revolution burst into flame. Diaz fled Mexico in 1911, ironically choosing France, the nation he had fought against half a century before, as his place of exile, He died in 1915. Numerous attempts to have his remains transported to Mexico have been rebuffed by Mexican governments, Diaz being still regarded as a dangerous subject more than a century after his death.