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Honduras: Introduction
Country Study > Introduction

INTRODUCTION


Honduras's rugged topography and lack of natural resources explain much of its history and present-day underdevelopment. The land has been underpopulated since precolonial times; the great civilizations of Middle America lay to the north, and European immigrants to the area were few in number because the region lacked mineral wealth and land suitable for farming. Extensive mountain ranges kept Honduras from being considered as a site for a transisthmian canal in the nineteenth century. This "rejection," however, brought the unexpected advantage of isolating the new nation from much of the international intrigue that engulfed Honduras's neighbors. Lack of large areas of flat land for plantations also had an unanticipated result: Honduras never produced a powerful landholding oligarchy like those that controlled the economies and politics of many of the countries of Central America, and as a result it has a more egalitarian society with a less rigid class structure than its neighbors.

Honduras has frequently been exploited by outsiders. Neighbors in Central America took advantage of Honduras's weakness and repeatedly intervened in Honduran internal affairs. Countries outside the region also manipulated Honduran politics from time to time to suit their own national interests. Intervention and manipulation were not limited to sovereign states. During the first half of the twentieth century, the Honduran economy was so dominated by the export of bananas that foreign banana companies often exercised as much power as the national government. Increased nationalism and economic diversification have strengthened national institutions in recent decades, but Honduras remains a nation highly sensitive to and dependent on external forces.

Although Honduras is the second largest country in Central America, it has little land available for cultivation. The terrain for the most part consists of rugged mountains, with narrow coastal plains to the north and south. Rainfall is abundant in the Caribbean lowlands and on some of the north-facing mountain slopes, but most of the arable valleys are fairly dry. When viewed from the air, most of the landscape appears barren. Unlike the more lush mountain areas of Guatemala and southern Mexico, the mountains and dry valleys of Honduras have always been rather inhospitable to settlers.

Honduras lay at the southern edge of the advanced civilizations of pre-Columbian Middle America. One of the most notable indigenous groups was the Maya, whose civilization spread south from the Yucatán and Guatemala in the fifth century A.D. In what is now northwestern Honduras, the Maya built the major ceremonial center of Copán. For three and a half centuries, the city was one of the principal centers of Mayan culture and trade. Sometime in the ninth century A.D., Copán, as well as most other Mayan cities, was abandoned. The reason for this abrupt event continues to puzzle archaeologists. Theories of civil war, disease, drought, overpopulation, and crop failure have all been proposed. Whatever the cause, the fall of the Mayan civilization apparently affected only the city dwellers. Although the priests and rulers who built the temples, inscribed the glyphs, and developed the astronomy and mathematics suddenly vanished, the peasants remained in the area and form a continuum of language and culture that exist to this day. European contact with Honduras began with Christopher Columbus in 1502, but little exploration or settlement by Europeans took place for the next two decades. Spanish conquistadors and a few settlers began arriving in the 1520s, but the area soon became a battleground for competing colonial authorities. The population of the area dropped precipitously as the indigenous population was nearly wiped out by new diseases, mistreatment, and exportation of large numbers of persons to other colonies as slave labor. By 1539 only an estimated 15,000 native people remained under Spanish control; two years later this figure had declined to 8,000. Most of the indigenous inhabitants were organized into encomiendas, a system that left the native people as vassals in their villages under the control of individual Spanish settlers.

The colony began to grow in the 1540s as a variety of agricultural activities developed and limited gold and silver mining began. However, gold production declined in the 1560s, the silver boom peaked in 1584, and economic depression returned shortly thereafter. By the seventeenth century, Honduras had become a poor and neglected backwater of the Spanish colonial empire, having a scattered population of mestizos (of mixed European and native ancestry), native people, blacks, and a handful of Spanish administrators and landowners. Cattle raising was the only important economic activity, and much of the Honduran interior and Caribbean coast remained uncolonized and outside effective Spanish control.

The eighteenth century saw slow growth of the colony as agriculture diversified and grew and the central government increased its political control over the area. Conflict over trade policy, however, sparked a rivalry between Honduras's principal cities, León and Granada, a rivalry that eventually became a blood feud lasting for almost 200 years. In Spain, the Bourbons assumed the throne in the early years of the century, and the revitalized Spanish government made several efforts to wrest control of the Caribbean coast from the British.

In the early nineteenth century, Spanish power went into rapid decline. The Napoleonic wars created turmoil in Spain, and the Spanish colonies took advantage of this diversion of attention and resources in the motherland to establish themselves as sovereign nations. In 1821 the Central American provinces joined in the growing New World chorus by declaring their independence from Spain. After some initial debate over whether Central America should face independence alone, in early 1822 the Central American provinces declared their allegiance to Mexico.

The union with Mexico was brief. In 1823 the United Provinces of Central America broke free from Mexico. From its inception, however, the new federation faced a series of ultimately insoluble problems. Spanish rule had fostered divisions and local suspicions among the five provinces of the federation more than it had engendered any spirit of Central American unity. The federation was beset by constant political rivalry and fighting. Unable to maintain any form of central control, the federation dissolved in 1838, and Honduras became a sovereign state.

The new nation emerged with a Spanish-indigenous heritage that survives intact to the present. Most of the population (an estimated 90 percent in 1994) was mestizo. The dominant language and religion were, and still are, Spanish and Roman Catholicism, although evangelical Protestant groups have made many converts in the late twentieth century. The largest racial and linguistic minority continue to be not the native peoples, who were almost completely eradicated or assimilated, but English-speaking blacks, a legacy of early British control of the Caribbean coast.

The years after independence in the eighteenth century were neither peaceful nor prosperous in Honduras. The country's weakness attracted the ambitions of individuals and nations within and outside of Central America. Even geography contributed to its misfortunes. Alone among the Central American republics, Honduras shared land borders with its three potential rivals for regional hegemony -- Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. This national rivalry was exacerbated by political divisions and civil wars throughout the isthmus, struggles that often crossed country borders. For a century and a half after independence, Honduras was ruled by dictators and subject to a constant series of coups and coup attempts. The combined impact of civil strife and foreign interventions kept Honduras in a position of relative economic and social backwardness.

The end of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century were a time of political and economic change. The peaceful transfer of presidential power in 1899 was the first time in decades that a constitutional transition had taken place. But 1899 was a watershed year in another, even more important sense. In that year, the first boatload of bananas was shipped from Honduras to the United States. The fruit found a ready market, and the trade grew rapidly. The United States-based banana companies constructed railroad lines and roads to serve the expanding banana production. Perhaps even more significant, Honduras began to attract the attention of the United States government. Until the early twentieth century, the United States played only a very limited role in internal Honduran political clashes. With its investments growing, however, the United States showed increased concern over Honduras's political instability. Although United States marines never occupied Honduras as they did neighboring Nicaragua, the United States frequently dispatched warships to waters near Honduras as a warning that intervention in Honduras was indeed a possibility if United States business interests were threatened or domestic conflict escalated.

From 1920 through 1923, there were seventeen uprisings or attempted coups in Honduras. Despite an international conference and various accords to promote stability throughout the isthmus, political strife in Honduras and its neighbors increased. This instability contributed to growing United States concern over Central America. Warships were again dispatched to the western Caribbean, and political aspirants and successive governments in Honduras were urged to honor constitutional provisions and international agreements. The pressure by the United States had the desired result, and more stable governments were in power from 1925 to 1931.

Political stability did not result in democracy, however. From 1932 to 1954, the country was successively ruled by two dictators -- Tiburcio Carías Andino and Juan Manuel Gálvez. Although repressive in rule, the two decades were a period of relative political calm. The administration of Carías sought to improve the military and engaged in a limited program of road building. His successor, Gálvez, continued Carías's policy of road building and developing coffee as an export crop; Gálvez also gave increased priority to education.

By the early 1950s, the economy had begun to diversify. Although bananas were still the most important crop, other agricultural products, such as coffee and cotton, became significant export earners. For the first time in more than half a century, bananas accounted for less than 50 percent of export earnings at the end of the 1950s.

Politically, the period from 1956 to 1958 marked a return to the instability that had characterized Honduras in the past. A coup in 1956 ousted the elected president and marked a turning point in Honduran history. For the first time, the armed forces acted as an institution rather than as the instrument of a political party or of an individual leader. For decades to come, the military would act as the final arbiter of Honduran politics. An election to return the country to civilian rule was scheduled for 1957 and won by a reformer, Ramón Villeda Morales. Although unhappy with many of his policies, the military allowed him to complete his term. When it appeared that another reformer, Ramón Ernesto Cruz, might win the 1963 elections, however, the military again seized power and installed General Oswaldo López Arrellano as president. Growing economic problems made the military regime increasingly unpopular, and except for a brief period in 1969 when the country united behind the military to fight the six-day Soccer War with El Salvador, pressure slowly built for a return to civilian government.

An election was held in 1971, but after only nineteen months in power, the civilian president was again overthrown by the military. For a time, economic growth and land reform made the new military government popular. Toward the end of the decade, however, the economy again slowed, and rumors began to circulate about governmental corruption and military involvement in narcotic trafficking. By 1978 it was clear that the military was losing control of the country. A coup in 1978 replaced the military president by a three-man junta, which promised to hold elections. A new constitution was drafted, elections were held, and in January 1982, a civilian president was inaugurated.

The new constitution kept the basic form of government Honduras had had under its fifteen previous constitutions. A strong president was to be elected by direct popular vote every four years. The National Congress, the unicameral legislature, was established with a varying number of members (128 in 1994) elected to four-year terms concurrent with the president. The judicial branch, theoretically independent of the other two, was in reality subject to pressure from the president and has often been criticized for corruption and inefficiency.

Although democracy returned to Honduras in 1982, the continued underdevelopment of the country produced a crisis of confidence in Honduran society throughout the 1980s. Indeed during that decade, mounting economic and social pressures produced an acute sense of disorientation in Honduran society. The combination of a worldwide economic crisis, a sharp rise in crime, and the absence of an independent police force and judicial system left the average citizen with a pronounced sense of vulnerability.

Three presidents -- Roberto Suazo Córdova (1982-86), José Azcona Hoyo (1986-90), and Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-94) -- had the difficult task of consolidating democracy, appeasing the military, and spurring economic development, while insurgencies raged in all of Honduras's neighbors. A campaign against leftists in the early 1980s led to frequent accusations of human rights abuses. Extensive military and economic aid came from the United States during this time, easing the effect of economic recession that enveloped all of Central America in the 1980s. The massive aid and presence of United States troops, however, evoked strong criticism from Honduran nationalists, as well as from many other segments of society, forcing the government to distance itself from the United States in the early 1990s.

Honduras's fourth democratically elected president since the return to democracy, Carlos Roberto Reina Idiáquez, assumed power in January 1994. Reina, the candidate of the Liberal Party of Honduras (Partido Liberal de Honduras -- PLH), one of Honduras's traditional political parties, handily defeated Osraldo Ramos Soto of the more conservative National Party of Honduras (Partido Nacional de Honduras -- PNH). The 62 percent turnout for the elections was low by Honduran standards, however, and some political observers attributed the low turnout to a lack of enthusiasm among the voters for either candidate. Analysts also indicated that although the 51 percent victory for Reina appeared to be a clear mandate, many of the voters cast ballots against the unpopular Ramos Soto rather than for Reina and his policies.

During the campaign, Reina ran on a traditional PLH platform of antimilitarism and social reform. In addition, he called for a "moral revolution" to combat the widespread corruption that many felt permeated Honduran society and government. His clean image and calls for reform struck a sympathetic chord with the electorate. Reina was well known to Honduran voters -- the sixty-seven-year-old lawyer was a lifelong politician who had been jailed in the 1970s for opposing policies of the military government, had worked during the 1980s for international human rights organizations, and had represented Honduras on the International Court of Justice.

Economic problems were the first challenge to the new president. Although the previous administration followed strict fiscal policies in its first three years in power, it went on a spending spree during its last few months. Inflation for the first two months of 1994 jumped to 16 percent, and the rapidly deteriorating economic situation forced the Reina administration to act quickly. It devalued the lempira (for value -- see Glossary) from US$1=6.2 to US$1=7.3 in February, froze the price of forty-four basic foodstuffs for seventy days, and announced plans to sell state enterprises.

In March 1994, Reina outlined his administration's policies in his state-of-the-union address. Social programs, especially those designed to lower the number of people living in poverty, cut the infant mortality rate, and increase child nutrition programs, would be given priority. Although the overall budget was cut 10 percent, social programs would increase to 35 percent of total government expenditures. Reina blamed many of Honduras's economic problems on corruption and urged the public and the nation's press to join him in his "moral revolution" to fight corruption at all levels. He vowed to rid the government of political appointees who did little work and promised to send a code of conduct for public employees to the National Congress for approval. Reina also promised to reduce the size of the armed forces and end the draft.

In the first step of his moral revolution, Reina established a new Ministry of the Public, charged with investigating charges of corruption. Independent of the government, an additional responsibility of the Ministry of the Public was oversight of the Department of Criminal Investigation (Departamento de Investigaciónes Criminal), created to replace the much-criticized National Directorate of Investigations (Directgorio de Investigación Nacional), the special intelligence unit of the armed forces.

In April a bill was submitted to the National Congress to end the military draft. Military service had been a major issue for most Hondurans because of the way recruits were obtained. Although all Honduran men are required to serve two years, draft lists were commonly ignored, and recruits were obtained by forced conscription of young, usually poor, men off the streets. The armed forces commander in chief, Luis Alonso Discua Elvir, complained that the armed forces would lack sufficient personnel if the draft (and the press-gang technique of gathering new soldiers) were abolished. In a surprise move, however, the military announced it would abide by the National Congress's decision, and the measure was eventually passed.

Despite attempts to increase social spending, the overall economy continued to deteriorate throughout 1994. The largest problem, however, proved not to be government fiscal policies but rather a severe energy crisis. A nationwide drought lowered the level of water in the Francisco Morazán dam, the country's principal source of electricity. The dam was producing only half of its 300-megawatt capacity in June after one of its four generators had to be shut down. Rotating blackouts of twelve hours per day crippled industrial production. Food and fuel prices were increased in the autumn to compensate for increased transportation costs. By the end of 1994, officials of the Roman Catholic Church warned that social unrest would increase if the economic crisis continued to deepen.

Although politically more stable than perhaps at any other time in its history, in late 1994 the country still faced daunting economic and social problems. The transportation and communication system was woefully inadequate for the nation's needs. Per capita income stood at US$650, one of the lowest figures in the Western Hemisphere. At least 40 percent of the total population was illiterate. Less than half the population completed elementary school. Health care for the rural population (about 50 percent of the total) and much of the urban poor was practically nonexistent. Malnutrition and disease were widespread. And despite government calls for increased spending on social programs, stringent budgetary measure presaged less, rather than more, money for government programs to improve health and education facilities. Given the grim social indicators, it is surprising that Honduras has managed to avoid, so far, the political violence that has plagued its neighbors with similar social problems. The question for Honduras in the future undoubtedly will be how best, with its limited resources, to deal with the growing pressures on its society while avoiding domestic unrest.

Tim L. Merrill - December 22, 1994

Data as of December 1993




Last Updated: December 1993


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Honduras was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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