Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

The Iron Hand of the Liberals

Mexico long remained a country with a single political party, that of the Diaz autocracy. Liberalism and any objection to the Diaz plan of government were repressed with a strong hand and antagonism not permitted to lift its head. The motto of Louis XIV, "L'Etat c'est moi" (The State, it is myself), might as well have been assumed as his own by President Diaz, since it would have closely applied to his system of rule. No one will deny that under Diaz a notable progress was made in Mexico. The government did not lack patriotic views and measures, and the progress of the country appeared to be the President's sincere desire. But its pretense to derive its power from the people's will was a transparent sham. Any expression of the popular will, any voice lifted in opposition to the President's purpose or decrees, was promptly stifled. The country changed under his rule from a republic to a military autocracy, and the emperors of old Rome itself were little more absolute. Of course, in these days of liberal ideas, such a system cannot safely be declared; the ruler must at least pretend that he has the public good at heart, but freedom of speech soon reaches its limit.

In our times the newspaper is the voice of the people, the channel by which private opinion is made public property. There were numbers of papers in Mexico when Diaz became President, and political criticism was as free as the winds. They appealed to the people openly, much too openly to be satisfactory to the new ruler, especially as some of them were so violent in their editorials as to encourage the regime of revolution by which Mexico had long been cursed.

President Diaz did not counsel the Congress to make laws curbing these over-radical journalists. That would have been a constitutional method, but his method was the personal one; that of the leader of an army, not that of the ruler of a state. He sent the police to arrest some of the most out-spoken editors and had them locked up in Belem Prison—a place of terror intended only for the lowest class of criminals, not for gentlemen of culture and standing in the community. Here they were kept for a week on a diet of bread and water.

This week of discipline ended, they were brought before the President.

"Now, gentlemen," he asked, "what do you think of my government?"

"Senor President," the replied, "we look upon it as the finest government upon the earth."

"Just continue to think so, gentlemen, and I think we shall get along splendidly."

After this lesson in practical politics there was no more trouble with the newspapers of Mexico. But what would happen if a president of the United States should adopt such a method of stilling newspaper criticism? Most likely something approaching a political earthquake would be the immediate result. The Emperor of Russia himself would probably have hesitated before taking such autocratic measures for the stifling of editorial utterance.

Federal cavalry in streets of Mexico City.


The Diaz government, in fact, did not rest upon public opinion or congressional action. Under the Constitution the republic of Mexico has its three governmental bodies, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, but the first of these had now outgrown and hidden the others from view. Diaz did not govern through the force of legislative sanction, but through the iron hand of military force. Congress was fully in accord with him and supported him in all his measures, though what would have been the case had there been any real representative government, any full and open suffrage of the people, is not easy to say. Not the Congress, but the army, the police, the secret agents of the executive authority were the real powers in Mexico, and these seem to have been used more for the repression of democratic movements among the people than for protection against common criminals.

As for the Mexican Congress, for many years before the election of Madero it was little more than a debating club. That Mexico had a president was always in evidence; that it had a parliament nobody troubled themselves to remember. The subjects in which the members were chiefly concerned were such as the minutes of the last meeting, decision as to whether a Mexican citizen should waive his antipathy to such trifles as stars or orders, and measures of like character. Chosen by the president, or elected under his auspices, they were there to put the stamp of approval upon his decrees; to stand up and wave their hands—their method of voting. When the president and cabinet had no special work for them to do, they indulged in literary declamations upon subjects that served to pass the time, but that were utterly destitute of political significance.

That a country of many millions of inhabitants could be unanimous in the choice, for eight successive terms, of a single candidate for the presidency is unthinkable; especially a country with the record of Mexico, in which rebellion against the parties in power had long been chronic. After President Diaz came into power a hand of iron was laid upon the old method and anarchy repressed wherever it dared show its head. But this did not prevent difference of opinion as to political matters. Repression did not confine itself to acts of rebellion, but was used against opposition to the government in any way. Cases of this kind were shown throughout the Diaz period.

Near the end of Porfirio Diaz's first term as president a movement was started in favor of Lerdo, the preceding president, who was then in voluntary exile in the United States. This movement was brought to a sudden and violent end. Vera Cruz was its center, a number of the prominent citizens of that city taking part in it. The result was the seizure of nine of these leaders as conspirators and traitors and their summary shooting without the shadow of a trial. "Kill them in haste" was the order said to have been telegraphed from Mexico City. "The Massacre of Vera Cruz" this act is called. That the attempt to bring back a former president and nominate him as a candidate was an act of treason deserving to be dealt with in this summary manner no one is likely to maintain.

On three subsequent occasions in the latter part of the nineteenth century Mexican citizens became candidates for the presidency, one being the governor of Jalisco, a second the ex-governor of Zacatecas. Who ordered the murder of these venturesome aspirants no one can say, but they both fell victims to assassins, one being stabbed, the other shot while seeking to escape to the United States. In 1891 Diaz announced his candidacy for a fourth term. An opposition movement was organized, but it was not suffered to gain any headway. Its nominee for president was Dr. Ignacio Martinez. The nomination was quickly followed by the imprisonment of its chief advocates and the flight of Martinez, who sought refuge in Europe. He subsequently came to the United States, where he started a paper opposing Diaz at Laredo, Texas. His end came from the bullet of a horseman, who crossed the river to Mexico before he could be seized. These successive assassinations of candidates for the presidency are certainly significant.

The only political party that was allowed to appear during the Diaz period was the Liberal Party, organized in 1900. Its career proved a disastrous one. It came into existence after the sixth "unanimous" election of President Diaz was assured, its formation having no connection with political affairs. Fear of the outcome of an effort to regain the Church ascendency led to its organization. The instigating cause was a speech made in Paris by the bishop of San Luis Potosi, in which he declared that the Church of Mexico was in a highly flourishing state, despite the Constitution and the restrictive laws. This utterance alarmed many Mexicans, who read between the lines of the address evidence of a purpose to endeavor to restore the old Church ascendency.

The alarm became general and Liberal clubs were founded in all parts of the country, one hundred and twenty-five of them in less than five months. Newspapers in aid of the cause were also started, fifty or more within a brief period, and the whole country seemed on the alert against any effort at political restoration of the Church. A call for a convention of Liberals was issued, to be held January 5, 1901, in San Luis Potosi. This was held in the Teatro de la Paz  (Peace Theater), the delegates being careful to avoid any criticism of the President or offer any suggestion of an armed movement against Church or State. The resolutions adopted pledged the Liberals to peaceful means in the campaign for reform which was their avowed purpose.

This meeting was held under the watchful eye of the governing powers. Gendarmes mingled with the spectators in the hall and a battalion of soldiers was drawn up in readiness in case of any need for their services arising. No such need appeared, and the convention quietly adjourned. But it was soon evident that the ideas of the Liberals were broadening and it became manifest that some of them were planning a political campaign for the next presidential election, three years later. No names of candidates were mentioned, yet the purpose became apparent and the administration took alarm. That hydra-headed monster, a new political party, was growing out of the movement against Church ascendency, and the autocracy scented danger in the air.

Mexican Federal soldiers on the march.


Certainly the career of the Liberals from that time forward was a hazardous one. The police received secret orders, and all over the country Liberal clubs were broken up on flimsy pretexts. Charges, apparently manufactured for the occasion, were brought against their leading members, some of whom were put into prison, others forced into the army. The public meetings held by the clubs were interrupted by violent interference on the part of the police. The history of the Liberal clubs has already been briefly given in Chapter IX, including the violent breaking up of a meeting held in 1902, and the imprisonment of its officers and many of its members.

Most of the other clubs were disposed of in a similar manner, in spite of the quietness and peacefulness of their proceedings. As for the Liberal newspapers, their plants were destroyed or confiscated in the slightest pretext, and their editors imprisoned for mild remarks concerning the oppression of the Liberals. Very few of them were left in circulation, and those only that were so cautious as to be innocuous. In the years that followed these journals were subjected to incessant persecution. One writer gives a list of thirty-nine that were thus dealt with in 1902, apparently to prevent agitation against the coming seventh election of President Diaz. In later years this continued, six newspapers being directly suppressed in 1908 for too great freedom of utterance.

The whole story of the suffering endured by the Liberals in the eight or ten years of their existence cannot here be told. On all sides they were thrown into prison or forced into the army, in the latter case being sent to the torrid and pestilential district of Quintana Roo, a fate almost equivalent to a sentence to death. All the sufferings these political agitators endured would need a volume to describe, the means taken to suppress the Liberal party being so drastic that no party could have survived them.

A state of affairs like this can scarcely be comprehended in a country like the United States, where political parties start up like mushrooms in the night, and grow unimpeded to the fullest possible extent. The idea of their suppression by violent means, when no act or advocacy of violence could be justly charged against them, would be preposterous in this liberty loving country. In Mexico, on the contrary, no opposition party, however mild its principles and utterances, was permitted to develop during the Diaz regime, and there seems to have been no crime more heinous than the holding of political opinions not in accordance with those of the executive powers.

That a party could have existed as long as did the Liberal party under circumstances like those described is evidence, of the vital earnestness of its membership, and indicates a very strong support in public opinion. There can be no doubt that opposition to the autocratic methods of the President was steadily growing, and that the time was approaching in which armed opposition could no longer be kept down.

Measures of suppression like those described—and we have avoided going into the tyranny of details given by some writers—could not be continued without provoking movements of insurrection; especially in a country like Mexico, in which armed rebellion has long been the favorite method of political opposition. Twice the Liberal party adopted this method, taking up arms in support of its principles, but on each occasion the precaution and vigor of the government put down the movement before it could grow dangerous. These outbreaks have been mentioned in Chapter IX, but the story of them is here given more in detail.

In 1906 an attempt at insurrection was put in train, the month of September being fixed for the outbreak. The claim is made that the revolutionists had thirty-six military groups organized and partly armed, awaiting the prearranged signal. They were well advised of the breadth of liberal sentiment in the country, and expected a general desertion from the army to their ranks and widespread support from the citizens at large.

Whether they were justified in their hopes of general support cannot be told, for the government had its spies in their midst and kept well in touch with the whole movement. The national day of independence, September 16th, was fixed for the projected outbreak, but it did not take place except in very small measure. When the day arrived the leaders in the movement were either dead or behind prison doors. The executive powers had struck quickly and strongly, and the rebellion died before at had an opportunity to declare itself.

In two cities, indeed, there were minor outbreaks. One party took possession of the town of Jimenez, in the State of Coahuila; a second broke out at Acayucan, in Vera Cruz, the military barracks here being besieged. In both these cities the rebel ranks were augmented by citizens, and for a day or two they held control. Then soldiers rushed in by train-load and the insurrection was nipped in the bud. The authorities did not mince matters. In less than twenty-four hours after the outbreak began four thousand soldiers were in Acayucan. Not long after their appearance in arms the would-be revolutionists were on their way to prison, and the dove of peace once more waved its wings over the republic.

The second attempt at insurrection came two years later, July, 1908, being the month chosen for the explosion. The military groups of the Liberals at this time are claimed to have been forty-six, all prepared for a simultaneous rising. But as before, the government was on the alert and had previous information of what was in train. In fact nearly all the fighting took place near the United States border, by refugees who crossed the border at various points, armed with guns purchased in American towns.

The government, meanwhile, was using its information in arresting the leaders and members of various groups. One such act took place at Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, and was given such publicity that the groups from the United States acted before the appointed time. The "Rebellion of Las Vacas," as this affair has been called, had a very brief period of existence. The government soon dispersed the invading bands, though a month passed before the fugitives were all hunted down and taken, powder and ball ending their careers, in the ordinary Mexican custom, wherever they were found.

Before this attempt at insurrection took place President Diaz had defined his position in a way that should have satisfied the Liberals if they had had confidence in his words. In March, 1908, as we are told by Mr. James Creelman, a correspondent of Pearson's Magazine, he had expressed himself as follows:

"No matter what my friends and supporters say, I retire when my present term of office ends, and I shall not serve again. I shall be eighty years old then. I have waited patiently for the day when the people of the Mexican Republic would be prepared to choose and change their government at every election without danger of armed revolutions, and without injury to the national credit or interference with national progress.

"I welcome an opposition party in the Mexican Republic. If it appears, I shall regard it as a blessing, not an evil, and if it can develop power, not to exploit but to govern, I will stand by it, support it, advise it and forget myself in the successful inauguration of complete democratic government in the country."

As the presidential term had been extended from four to six years in 1904, this would bring President Diaz's seventh term forward to 1910, in which he proposed to withdraw. The statement made was widely reprinted in Mexico, where, as may be supposed, it created a profound sensation. The people who desired a change of administration, and these formed a large majority of the nation, were overjoyed, and a discussion as to the most desirable candidate to succeed him was begun. Various questions relating to popular government were also debated. But all this suddenly ceased when it was whispered about that the President's promise to withdraw was not to be taken as final. Talk about a successor to the presidency was no longer a safe proceeding, and a new idea took its place. This was to urge the President to retain his seat, but to ask for the privilege of a free election of a vice-president, with the purpose of having some one fitted to succeed him in case of his death during a succeeding six years term.

As President Diaz let this plan pass in silence, his assent to it was taken for granted, and an agitation in this new direction began. The idea was discussed in public, was dealt with in the newspapers, and clubs to act upon it were widely formed. It is said that in a brief time these numbered fully five hundred. A convention was held in January, 1909, to organize a central body to be called the Central Democratic Club. This convention met, elected officers, and adopted a platform of which the chief features were:

Abolition of the jefes politicos  and the creation of municipal boards of aldermen in their place.

The extension of primary education.

The suffrage to be placed on a mixed educational and property basis.

Greater freedom for the press.

Stricter enforcement of the reform laws dealing with church matters.

Greater respect for life and liberty and better administration of justice.

Laws for the benefit of the working people.

Laws for the encouragement of agriculture.

Other steps taken—in April, 1909—were nominations for the coming election. The Re-electionist Club, a body of office-holders, renominated the existing executive officials, President Porfirio Diaz and Vice-President Ramon Corral. The Democratic party followed, also nominating Diaz for the presidency, but naming General Bernardo Reyes, Governor of Nuevo Leon, for Vice-President.

The campaign that was launched in favor of this ticket was a temperate and inoffensive one. There was no hint of rebellion, no severe criticism of existing institutions, nothing reflecting in any way on President Diaz. The people had learned that discretion in public utterance was the part of wisdom. Yet it quickly appeared that a large majority of the people favored Reyes, and it became evident that the Democratic party was popular. Diaz, smelling danger afar, quickly made it appear that he did not propose to have an opposition party in the country, however moderate in its seeming views. He had experience of the development of the Liberals, and distrusted the Democrats.

Fire was opened upon the Democrats by transferring to distant sections of the country certain army officers who favored Reyes. Next came the dismissal of some Democrats who held governmental positions. At a meeting in July in favor of Corral some of the audience hissed one of the speakers. At once companies of police were ordered to clear the building, and this they did in the Mexican manner, with sabre, pistol and club. As a result forty or fifty of the audience were killed and wounded, while the number arrested approached a thousand. Autocracy was clearly in the saddle again.

This was only the beginning. Arrests of Democrats were made in all sections of the country, prominent men being. chosen. The charge against them usually was "sedition," though nothing that could fairly be given this name was in evidence. Of these captives some were kept in jail for months, others were sentenced to long prison terms. At the same time the newspapers which supported the Democratic cause were suppressed, the editors being imprisoned or exiled, the printing plants seized. In this way all public advocacy of the new party movement was sternly and definitely checked.

As for General Reyes, the Democratic candidate for Vice-President, he was wise or cautious enough to decline the honor offered him. It was a dangerous gift, and on four separate occasions he refused to accept it. Yet this did not satisfy Diaz. A military force was sent to Nuevo Leon and its governor brought to the capital. There he found it expedient to resign his position as governor, and to accept a "military mission" to Europe. It was a virtual act of banishment, and was so generally regarded.

Such were some—not all—of the steps taken by Diaz to suppress the Democratic party. He doubtless expected them to be adequate, but they were not so. The sentiment of opposition had now grown too strong to be thus dealt with. Instead of intimidating the Democrats he simply infuriated them. The half-opposition party grew into a whole one. No longer satisfied with nominating a vice-president, the Democrats now nominated a candidate for president. Their candidate was Francisco I. Madero. Diaz had dug his own political grave.