History of Honduras

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Honduras > Map Economy History

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.

Honduras, along with the other Central American provinces, gained independence from Spain in 1821; the country then briefly was annexed to the Mexican Empire. In 1823, Honduras joined the newly formed United Provinces of Central America. Social and economic differences between Honduras and its regional neighbors exacerbated harsh partisan strife among Central American leaders and brought on the federation's collapse in 1838. Gen. Francisco Morazan--a Honduran national hero--led unsuccessful efforts to maintain the federation, and restoring Central American unity remained the chief aim of Honduran foreign policy until after World War I.

Since independence, Honduras has been plagued with nearly 300 internal rebellions, civil wars, and changes of government--more than half occuring during the 20th century. The country traditionally lacked both an economic infrastructure and social and political integration. Its agriculturally based economy came to be dominated in the 1900s by U.S. companies that established vast banana plantations along the north coast. Foreign capital, plantation life, and conservative politics held sway in Honduras from the late 19th until the mid-20th century. During the relatively stable years of the Great Depression, authoritarian Gen. Tiburcio Carias Andino controlled Honduras. His ties to dictators in neighboring countries and to U.S. banana companies helped him maintain power until 1948. By then, provincial military leaders had begun to gain control of the two major parties, the Nationalists and the Liberals.

From Military to Civilian Rule
In October 1955--after two authoritarian administrations and a general strike by banana workers on the north coast in 1954--young military reformists staged a palace coup that installed a provisional junta and paved the way for constituent assembly elections in 1957. This assembly appointed Dr. Ramon Villeda Morales as president and transformed itself into a national legislature with a 6-year term. The Liberal Party ruled during 1957-63. At the same time, the military took its first steps to become a professional institution independent of leadership from any one political party, and the newly created military academy graduated its first class in 1960. In October 1963, conservative military officers preempted constitutional elections and deposed Villeda in a bloody coup. These officers exiled Liberal Party members and took control of the national police. The armed forces, led by Gen. Lopez Arellano, governed until 1970. Popular discontent continued to rise after a 1969 border war with El Salvador. A civilian president--Ramon Cruz of the National Party--took power briefly in 1970 but proved unable to manage the government. In December 1972, Gen. Lopez staged another coup. Lopez adopted more progressive policies, including land reform, but his regime was brought down in the mid-1970s by corruption scandals.

Gen. Lopez' successors continued armed forces modernization programs, building army and security forces, and concentrating on Honduran air force superiority over its neighbors. The regimes of Gen. Melgar Castro (1975-78) and Gen. Paz Garcia (1978-83) largely built the current physical infrastructure and telecommunications system of Honduras. The country also enjoyed its most rapid economic growth during this period, due to greater international demand for its products and the availability of foreign commercial lending.

Following the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979 and general instability in El Salvador at the time, the Honduran military accelerated plans to return the country to civilian rule. A constituent assembly was popularly elected in April 1980 and general elections were held in November 1981. A new constitution was approved in 1982, and the Liberal Party government of President Roberto Suazo Cordoba took office following free and fair elections power.

Suazo relied on U.S. support to help with a severe economic recession and with the threat posed by the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua amid a brutal civil war in El Salvador. Close cooperation on political and military issues with the United States was complemented by ambitious social and economic development projects sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Honduras became host to the largest Peace Corps mission in the world, and nongovernmental and international voluntary agencies proliferated.

As the November 1985 election approached, the Liberal Party had difficulty settling on a candidate, and interpreted election law as permitting multiple presidential candidates from one party. The Liberal Party claimed victory when its presidential candidates, who received 42% of the vote, collectively outpolled the National Party candidate, Rafael Leonardo Callejas. Jose Azcona Hoyo, the candidate receiving the most votes among the Liberals, assumed the presidency in January 1986. With the endorsement of the Honduran military, the Azcona administration ushered in the first peaceful transfer of power between civilian presidents in more than 30 years. Four years later, Rafael Callejas won the presidential election, taking office in January 1990. Callejas concentrated on economic reform, reducing the deficit, and taking steps to deal with an overvalued exchange rate and major structural barriers to investment. He began the movement to place the military under civilian control and laid the groundwork for the creation of the public ministry (Attorney General's office).

Despite his administration's economic reforms, the nation's fiscal deficit ballooned during Callejas' last year in office. Growing public dissatisfaction with the rising cost of living and with widespread government corruption led voters in 1993 to elect Liberal Party candidate Carlos Roberto Reina over National Party contender Oswaldo Ramos Soto, with Reina winning 56% of the vote.

President Reina, elected on a platform calling for a "moral revolution," actively prosecuted corruption and pursued those responsible for human rights abuses in the 1980s. He created a modern attorney general's office and an investigative police force and was successful in increasing civilian control over the armed forces and transferring the police from military to civilian authority.

Reina also restored national fiscal health by substantially increasing Central Bank net international reserves, reducing inflation, restoring economic growth, and, perhaps most importantly, holding down spending.

Carlos Roberto Flores Facusse took office on January 27, 1998, as Honduras' fifth democratically elected president since democratic institutions were restored in 1981. Like three of his four predecessors, Flores was a member of the Liberal Party. He was elected by a 10% margin over his main opponent, National Party nominee Nora de Melgar. Upon taking office on January 27, 1998, Flores inaugurated programs of reform and modernization of the Honduran Government and economy, with emphasis on helping Honduras' poorest citizens while maintaining the country's fiscal health and improving international competitiveness.

In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, leaving more than 5,000 people dead and 1.5 million displaced. Damages totaled nearly $3 billion. The Honduran Government agreed to a new transparent process to manage relief funds, which included significant donor oversight. This open process greatly facilitated the relief and reconstruction effort. President Flores and his administration have successfully managed more than $600 million in international assistance. Civil society's role in the government-coordinated reconstruction process has been lauded internationally. President Flores also forwarded judicial and penal reforms. He established an anticorruption commission, supported passage of a new penal code based on the oral accusatorial system, and saw passage of a law that creates an independent Supreme Court. Flores cemented the transition from military to civilian rule by eliminating the commander in chief position, and by signing a law that establishes civilian control formally over the military.

Ricardo Maduro Joest of the National Party was elected to the Honduran presidency on November 25, 2001, outpolling the Liberal candidate, Rafael Pineda Ponce, by 8%. He will be inaugurated on January 27, 2002. The elections, characterized by international observer teams as free, fair, and peaceful, reflected the maturing of Honduras' democratic institutions. During his campaign, President-elect Maduro promised to reduce crime, reinvigorate the economy, and fight corruption.

SOURCES: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress, U.S. Department of State

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Honduras > Map Economy History