Both Spain and Mexico are considered to be very colourful and vibrant countries, yet they also have dark pasts. The brutal dictatorships of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico and Miguel Primo de Rivera in Spain marred the uniquely spirited countries during the 19th and 20th Centuries. The regimes’ mirrored each other in many ways because the social landscapes of the two countries were so similar. However it was the contrasting personalities of the leaders of the two regimes that led each country to very different fates.
The Díaz regime in Mexico emerged first, dubbed the ‘Porfiriato’ (a diminutive of the General’s first name) and held power from 1876 to 1911. Díaz was a prominent military figure during the battles against the French and the Austrians in the mid-19th Century. Despite failed attempts to gain political control through elections and a short lived insurrection in 1871, Díaz finally staged a successful coup in 1876 after the sudden death of the Liberal President Benito Juárez. Díaz forced an election, which he won – under very suspicious circumstances – and remained President until the uprising of 1911.
Also a soldier, de Rivera led a military coup against the Cortes, the Spanish Parliament, in 1923. The politicians had been deeply offended by the army, and had raised an investigation into military corruption. A hurt sense of pride stemming from Spain’s declining Empire compounded de Rivera’s frustration at the Cortes, who went on to lead the conservative army in a coup against them. The coup gained the support of the then King, Alfonso XIII, who legitimised de Rivera rule for the next 7 years.
De Rivera’s regime lacked any particular base of electoral support. Therefore, the regime was heavily reliant on a sense of tradition, monarchy, religion, and a Nationalistic conservatism that made him very dependent on the Spanish elites. Similarly, Díaz prioritised the upper classes of Mexico however, he also encouraged foreign investment from the US and Western Europe, especially in the mining industry, with significant tax breaks. A period of economic boom towards the end of the 1800s saw the building of railways and a process of modernisation that left behind the rural poor and the working classes.
His military background and virulent loyalty to the Catholic Church largely explains de Rivera’s appeal to the wealthy elites of Spain. Additionally, he was seemingly only concerned with enriching the landowners (called ‘Hacendados’) ignoring the fate of the agricultural workers (‘Campesinos’), who remained trapped in an almost feudal state of poverty. In reality, however, De Rivera attempted to raise taxes to fund public works. When this was rejected he funded the projects through borrowing, and by the 1930s Spain had amassed a huge National Debt, which would plague the subsequent Second Republic.
This reveals the most prominent difference between the regimes: de Rivera was not as skilful a politician as Díaz was. In Mexico, the entire regime was centred around Díaz himself. No other General or Regional Leader was allowed to accrue loyalty or public support, lest they detracted away from the top dog. Díaz played the minor politicians off against each other in order to keep his position stable. By contrast, de Rivera was a member of the aristocracy, who expected certain things from their political representative. He became trapped between those upon whom he relied upon for support, and the majority of his population. Furthermore, De Rivera was evidently an undemocratic ruler, whereas Díaz kept up the charade of elections – even if they were rigged – to maintain a façade of liberal democracy.
What both the men had most in common, however, was their military background. Díaz had risen from poverty through the ranks of the Mexican army to become a war hero before he staged his rebellion. De Rivera was a member of the aristocratic officer class; the elite section of Spanish society was therefore a product of a top-heavy army frustrated by a lack of action, and resentful of the previous generation of supposedly un-patriotic politicians.
Therefore, under both dictatorships, the military was the main vice through which civilians would interact with the State. Both Díaz and de Rivera used their armies to enforce their authoritarian rule through violence. In Mexico Díaz used the famous phrase “pan o palo”, meaning “bread or the bludgeon”. Journalists and critics were threatened, or simply disappeared, and in Spain in particular state violence towards protestors and Trade Unionists was almost constant. Under Díaz, the Mexican army became a highly stratified entity, with appointed officers in smart uniforms who had proper training. Again, to the detriment of the poor, Díaz used his well presented officers to efficiently quell any resistance to his rule.
De Rivera, however, lacked Diaz’s organisational skills; he was above all a Spanish patriot, and for him the military was more of a lifestyle than a political tool. When he abolished the democratic Cortes, he set up a Directory of 8 military advisors, and replaced regional politicians with officers. Unlike Díaz, he struggled to retain control over his support base, and when King Alfonso withdrew his support, the military soon followed.
Whereas Díaz clung onto his draconian rule until he was ousted by the forces of rebellion, De Rivera conceded to resign in January 1930 after it became clear he had lost the support of the Army and the Monarchy. Thus, whilst Mexico was plunged into an infamous Civil War which lasted 9 and half years, Spain had many more years of tensions and cultural battles, all the while teetering on the edge of disaster, before it would finally crash into its own tragic age of bloodshed.
(Editors’ choice article from Issue 31: War, Conflict and Violence. The full issue is available here.)