officially Republic of Honduras, Spanish República de Honduras
Country, Central America.
Area: 43,433 sq mi (112,492 sq km). Population (2008 est.):
7,639,000. Capital: Tegucigalpa. The great majority of the population
are mestizos. Language: Spanish (official). Religion: Christianity
(predominantly Roman Catholic; also Protestant). Currency: Honduran
lempira. The second largest country in Central America, Honduras has an
almost 400-mi (645-km) coastline on the Caribbean Sea to the north and a
45-mi (72-km) coast centred on the Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific Ocean
side of the isthmus. More than three-fourths of Honduras is mountainous
and wooded. The eastern lowlands include part of the Mosquito Coast.
Most of the people live in isolated communities in the mountainous
interior, where the climate is hot and rainy. The economy is primarily
agricultural; bananas, coffee, and sugar are the main export crops, and
corn is the chief domestic staple. Honduras is a multiparty republic
with one legislative house, and the head of state and government is the
president. The Maya civilization flourished in the region in the 1st
millennium ce. There are architectural and sculptural remains of a
ceremonial centre at Copán, which was in use from c. 465 to c. 800.
Christopher Columbus reached Honduras in 1502, and Spanish settlement
followed. A major war between the Spaniards and the Indians broke out in
1537; the conflict ended in the decimation of the Indian population
through disease and enslavement. After 1570 Honduras was part of the
captaincy general of Guatemala, until Central American independence in
1821. It was then part of the United Provinces of Central America but
withdrew in 1838 and declared its independence. In the 20th century,
under military rule, there was nearly constant civil war. A civilian
government was elected in 1981. The military remained influential,
however, as the activity of leftist guerrillas increased. Flooding
caused by a hurricane in 1998 devastated the country, killing thousands
of people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. In 2001 Honduras
was hit by a severe drought. Recovery and rebuilding efforts followed
for the next several years. In 2009 Pres. Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a
coup, and an interim regime supported by the military took control of
the country. It was the first military coup in Central America since the
end of the Cold War.
Official name República de Honduras (Republic of Honduras)
Form of government multiparty republic1 with one legislative house
(National Congress )
Head of state and government President
Official language Spanish
Official religion none
Monetary unit lempira (L)
Population estimate (2008) 7,639,000
Total area (sq mi) 43,433
Total area (sq km) 112,492
1In actuality an interim regime supported by the military from June 28,
2009; presidential elections are planned for November 2009.
officially Republic of Honduras, Spanish República de Honduras
country of Central America situated between Guatemala and El Salvador
to the west and Nicaragua to the south and east. The Caribbean Sea
washes its northern coast, the Pacific Ocean its narrow coast to the
south. Its area includes the offshore Caribbean department of the Bay
Islands. The capital is Tegucigalpa (with Comayagüela), but—unlike most
other Central American countries—another city, San Pedro Sula, is
equally important industrially and commercially, although it has only
half the population of the capital.
The bulk of the population of Honduras lives a generally isolated
existence in the mountainous interior, a fact that may help to explain
the rather insular policy of the country in relation to Latin and
Central American affairs. Honduras, like its neighbours in the region,
is a developing nation whose citizens are presented with innumerable
economic and social challenges, a situation that is complicated by rough
topography and the occasional violence of tropical weather patterns,
including the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
More than three-fourths of the land area of Honduras is mountainous,
lowlands being found only along the coasts and in the several river
valleys that penetrate toward the interior. The interior takes the form
of a dissected upland with numerous small peaks. The main surface
features have a general east-west orientation. There is a narrow plain
of alluvium bordering the Gulf of Fonseca in the south. The southwestern
mountains, the Volcanic Highlands, consist of alternating layers of rock
composed of dark, volcanic detritus and lava flows, both of middle to
early Cenozoic age (i.e., about 2.6 to 65 million years old). The
northern mountains in other regions are more ancient, with granite and
crystalline rocks predominating.
Four geographic regions may be discerned:
The eastern Caribbean lowlands (including the northern part of the
Mosquito [Miskito] Coast, called La Mosquitia) and mountain slopes
embrace about one-fifth of the total land area of Honduras. Hot and
humid, this area is densely forested in the interior highlands, and
lumbering is an important economic activity. Subsistence agriculture and
fishing are the main support of the scattered population.
The northern coastal and alluvial plains and coastal sierras make up
about one-eighth of the land area and contain about one-fourth of the
population. This is an economically important region, the clayey and
sandy loam soils producing rich crops of bananas, rice, cassava (manioc,
or yuca), oil palm, corn (maize), citrus fruits, and beans. Cattle,
poultry, and pigs are raised. The nation’s railroads are confined to
this northern area, which has four of the five important ports of entry.
The central highlands take up two-thirds of the national territory and
contain the vast majority of the population. The mountains are rugged,
rising in the west to 9,347 feet (2,849 metres) at Mount Las Minas, the
highest point in the country. The numerous flat-floored valleys lie
between 2,000 and 4,000 feet (600 to 1,200 metres) in elevation. The
generally fertile soils, derived from lava and volcanic ash, produce
coffee, tobacco, wheat, corn, sorghum, beans, fruits, and vegetables and
support cattle, poultry, and pigs.
The Pacific lowlands, centred on the Gulf of Fonseca, and the adjacent
lower mountain slopes are only a small part of the land area and contain
an equally small part of the population. The fertile soils, composed of
alluvium or volcanic detritus, produce sesame seed, cotton, and some
corn and sorghum. Cattle are raised on the lowland pastures, and coffee
is grown on the nearby uplands.
The climate is generally hot, with high humidity in the tropical
coastal lowlands becoming modified by elevation toward the interior.
Lowlands below 1,500 feet (460 metres) have mean annual temperatures
between 79 and 82 °F (26 and 28 °C). The north coast is occasionally
affected from October to April by cool northern winds of continental
origin. Mountain basins and valleys, from 2,000 to 4,000 feet (600 to
1,200 metres), have mean annual temperatures of 66 and 73 °F (19 and 23
°C). At Tegucigalpa, located on hilly terrain at an elevation of 3,200
feet (975 metres), the rainy season starts in May and continues until
mid-November, with temperatures sometimes reaching 90 °F (32 °C) in May
and dropping to 50 °F (10 °C) in December, the coolest month. Around
7,000 feet (2,100 metres) mean annual temperatures are about 58 °F (14
°C). In the northern and eastern coastal and alluvial plains and on
adjacent mountains, mean annual precipitation ranges from 70 to 110
inches (1,800 to 2,800 mm) or more, with a less rainy season from March
to June; these areas occasionally have summer hurricanes that are
accompanied by heavy rains. Pacific plains and mountain slopes get 60 to
80 inches (1,500 to 2,000 mm) of rain annually but from December to
April receive little or no rain. Interior sheltered mountain basins and
valleys receive 40 to 70 inches (1,000 to 1,800 mm) annually.
Plant and animal life
In eastern Honduras the coastal and lagoon swamps have mangrove and
palm forests, and west of these are low, rainy, sandy plains with pine
(Pinus caribaea) savanna, extending inland for 40 miles (65 km) or more.
West of the pine savanna, in low valleys and on lower mountains, which
are rainy all year, and on the low, rainy northern mountains are broad
belts of dense evergreen broad-leaved forests with many species of large
trees, including mahogany, lignum vitae, Spanish cedar, balsa, rosewood,
ceiba, sapodilla, and castilloa rubber. The high, rainy mountain slopes
of highland Honduras support excellent oak-pine forests. Open, dry,
deciduous woodlands and temperate grasslands are spread throughout the
interior highland basins and valleys. The Pacific plains and adjacent
mountain slopes have deciduous tropical forests and savannas. Mangroves
occupy the low coastal swamps.
Insects, birds, and reptiles are the most conspicuous animal forms.
There are many species of butterflies, moths, beetles, bees, wasps,
spiders, ants, flies, and mosquitoes, many of them beautifully coloured.
Waterfowl in large numbers inhabit the coastal areas. Crocodiles,
snakes, lizards (giant iguana and others), and turtles are found in the
tropical forest areas. The fauna also includes deer, peccaries, tapir,
pumas, jaguars, and ocelots. Fish and mollusks are abundant in lagoons
and coastal waters. Deforestation of some interior regions since the
Spanish conquest has led to serious soil erosion, and, since the
mid-20th century, pesticides used by banana producers have caused
environmental damage along coastal regions.
To safeguard native flora and fauna, numerous national parks,
protected forests, and biological reserves were established in the late
1980s and ’90s, including Mount Bonito National Park (1987), which
covers 434 square miles (1,125 square kilometres), and the protected
forests Cuero y Salado (1987) and Isopo Point (1992). Extending more
than 60 square miles (155 square km) near the Guatemalan border is Mount
Azul de Copán National Park (1987), an area of rainforest that surrounds
the famous Mayan ruins of Copán. La Tigra National Park was established
in 1980 and covers 92 square miles (238 square km) of cloud forest near
Honduras has been inhabited since well before the 1st century ad.
The ruins at Copán in western Honduras indicate that the area was the
centre of Mayan civilization before the Maya migrated to the Yucatán
Peninsula. Most of the American Indians are Lenca and are now found in
the southwest, near the Guatemala border, close to the most important
Indian centres of the pre-Columbian period. Small, isolated groups of
non-Spanish-speaking Indians—such as the Jicaque, Miskito (Mosquito),
and Paya—continue to live in the northeast, although their numbers are
declining. Of the total population, about nine-tenths is mestizo (a
mixture of Spanish and Indian). Blacks of West Indian origin and
Garifuna (Black Caribs) make up a significant part of the population
along the Caribbean coast, an area where English is widely spoken.
The official language of Honduras is Spanish, and the predominant
religion is Roman Catholicism, more than four-fifths of the population
being adherents. The largest of the remaining groups are Protestant,
with notable congregations in the east and on the Bay Islands. There has
been rapid growth in Protestant churches, especially since the upheaval
caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
A pronounced shift in population took place during the early part of
the 20th century from the interior to the hot, humid northern coast,
where employment opportunities were provided by the United Fruit
Company. These northwestern lowlands and the western and southern
highlands constitute the most densely populated parts of the country.
The population grew extremely fast during the mid-20th century, posing a
considerable problem in employment and housing. Although the rate of
growth slowed somewhat by the 1990s, it remained well above the world
average. The majority of the population is rural, living in small
villages or isolated settlements, but nearly half of Hondurans are urban
residents. During the 1980s and ’90s there was an especially rapid
increase in urban population in and around Tegucigalpa, with
accompanying overcrowding of housing, suburban development, air and
water pollution, and rising crime rates. In the rest of the country, the
mountainous, forested terrain and poor roads added to the local
Honduras is a poor country, and the majority of Hondurans work under
extremely difficult conditions. The government has, however, adopted
more active economic policies since the mid-20th century. In 1954
striking banana workers led the trade union movement to one of its most
resounding triumphs, which resulted in the promulgation (in 1955) of a
labour code that is considered one of the most complete instruments of
its kind in Latin America. The code has generally resulted in a higher
standard of living for the worker and better operating conditions for
business; labour laws are not always strictly applied, however, and some
workplaces are substandard.
The country’s natural resources include agricultural lands along the
northern coast and interior river valleys, extensive pine forests, and
small deposits of silver, lead, zinc, and low-grade iron ore. The
economy is geographically divided between the highlands, where
subsistence farming, stock raising, and mining have long dominated, and
the lowlands, where plantation agriculture based largely on bananas is
the chief occupation. In 1998, however, Hurricane Mitch devastated large
portions of Honduran agriculture and transportation infrastructure,
requiring major reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Early in the 21st century agriculture contributed little more than
one-tenth of the gross domestic product (GDP) but still employed the
biggest slice (about two-fifths) of the labour force. Two U.S.
corporations—Chiquita (formerly United Fruit Company and United Brands)
and Dole (formerly Standard Fruit and Steamship Company and Castle &
Cooke)—hold a disproportionate amount of the country’s agricultural land
and produce a substantial part of the national income by growing the
majority of the country’s banana crop. Important export crops other than
bananas include coffee beans, tobacco, and sugarcane. Corn is the chief
staple crop. Honduran farmers also plant genetically modified corn
(illegal in the rest of Central America), which has helped combat food
shortages and rising corn prices. Cattle raising is the main livestock
activity, and beef has become an important export.
About two-fifths of the country’s land is covered by forests, making
forest products a potentially large source of national income. The
extensive pine forests were attacked by blight in the 1960s, and
mahogany—the major timber export—began declining in importance. The
practice of shifting agriculture, employing widespread burning of
forests and the cutting of wood for fuel, has caused a depletion of
forest resources. Present commercial practices of forest exploitation
are inefficient. A substantial portion of timber harvested for
commercial purposes does not reach the sawmill, and less than half of
the timber that arrives at the mill is processed into lumber. To help
alleviate the wasteful forestry practices, the government put all forest
trees under state ownership in 1974, but forests continue to be depleted
at a rapid rate.
Fishing is a small but developing industry, carried on mainly off the
Caribbean coast. Shrimp and lobster are the most important parts of the
catch, the largest portion of which is shipped to the United States.
Manufacturing, which accounted for about one-fifth of the GDP in the
early 21st century, is dominated by small-scale firms that operate with
intermediate levels of technology and possess limited processing
capabilities. Dozens of foreign-owned maquiladoras (duty-free
manufacturing plants) were opened in the late 20th century, and by 1997
they employed as many as 75,000 workers, mostly women. The major
products manufactured and processed are food products, beverages,
textiles, clothing, chemicals, lumber, and paper products. The
production of capital and heavy intermediate goods is minimal.
Industrial plants are located largely in the urban areas of San Pedro
Sula and Tegucigalpa.
Mineral resources are limited but include silver, gold, lead, zinc,
antimony, iron, mercury, and copper. From the 19th to the mid-20th
century, the economy was largely dependent upon the production of silver
and gold, particularly from El Mochito mine, which was the largest in
Central America. Mining accounts for a tiny percent of the GDP, with
zinc the leading mineral export.
Except along the northern coastal plain, where railroads serve the
banana plantations, the country’s rugged terrain favours the development
of roads instead of railroads, and roads in Honduras carry the vast
majority of the freight tonnage and almost all the passenger traffic.
The heart of the primary road network is the north-south highway that
links the Pacific port of San Lorenzo and the Caribbean port of Puerto
Cortez, stopping at Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. The highway provides
access to important agricultural areas in the Sula and Choluteca valleys
and along the Caribbean coast. The Inter-American Highway (part of the
Pan-American Highway) cuts across southern Honduras for about 100 miles.
Highways also run southwest from San Pedro Sula to the El Salvador
border and along the northern coast from San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba.
Hurricane Mitch caused enormous damage to the Honduran road system.
The Honduras National Railway, which is owned by the government and
extends from Puerto Cortez to San Pedro Sula, hauls timber and
agricultural products. The Tela Railway, once owned by the United Brands
Company and acquired by the Honduras government in 1975, provides
service for plantations in the eastern Sula Valley and the coastal
plain. Another government-owned railroad runs east along the coastal
plain to Balfate, with a branch extending into the Aguán Valley.
All Honduran ports are operated by the National Port Authority. The
major ports in the country are Puerto Cortez, Tela, La Ceiba, and Puerto
Castilla. The Pacific coast provides deepwater anchorage at Amapala on
El Tigre Island and at the mainland port of San Lorenzo, completed in
Domestic air travel, although declining, supplements rail and highway
travel, which includes intercity bus and truck service. Ramón Villeda
Morales International Airport at San Pedro Sula is the largest airfield.
The airport at Tegucigalpa has a substantially shorter runway and is
minimally suitable for modern jet travel.
Administration and social conditions
Since acquiring independence in 1821, Honduras has constitutionally
been a democratic, representative, unitary state with power divided
among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The country’s
constitution was rewritten 17 times between the years 1821 and 1982.
However, power has often changed hands by violent, undemocratic means.
Although the legislature is given the power to pass laws, practically
all important legislation is drafted by the president and other members
of the executive branch. The National Congress in theory has great
authority to check the administrative activities of the president, but
only during the period 1925–31, when several cabinet ministers appointed
by the president were forced to resign through censure, was such
The president, who is head of state and of the government, is elected
directly by popular vote for an unrenewable term of four years. The
single-house National Congress is composed of 128 legislators elected to
four-year terms. The major political parties are the Liberal Party of
Honduras (Partido Liberal de Honduras) and the National Party (Partido
Nacional). All citizens over 18 years of age are permitted to vote.
For purposes of local administration, Honduras is divided into 18
departamentos. Governors are appointed by the president, one for each
department, to carry out central government decisions. The departments
are divided into municipios (municipalities), which are further
partitioned into aldeas (villages, or hamlets). Rural areas are grouped
into caseríos (settlements), which are subdivisions of aldeas.
Localities may elect a mayor, a legal representative, and a council.
The justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president. The
Supreme Court exercises centralized control over the lower courts,
including the appointment of justices, and has original and exclusive
jurisdiction to declare acts of the legislature unconstitutional.
The Honduran educational system follows the European model of
centralized control through the Ministry of Public Education. According
to law, education is free and, at the primary level, compulsory for all
children. Efforts have been made to combat illiteracy, which affects
more than one-fourth of the population over age 15 and is especially
prevalent among older people. Higher education is centred at the
National Autonomous University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa (founded
Welfare and health
By the end of the 20th century, Honduras, like most other Latin
American countries, had moved increasingly in the direction of the
interventionist, or welfare, state. In 1955 the Honduran basic labour
code came into effect, granting the right to work, a minimum wage, an
eight-hour workday, the freedom to form labour unions, collective
bargaining, conciliation, and the right to strike. Social security and
social welfare benefits were not improved appreciably, however: many
Honduran workers outside the public sector and not employed by business
or industry are not covered. Health care also is generally inadequate
for the poor urban and rural labourers. Death rates are high among the
lower economic groups, who suffer from two severe health problems in
particular, malnutrition and malaria.
The art and architecture of the pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial
periods are strongly evident in Honduran culture. Of special interest is
the great Mayan city of Copán, which represents the height of the Mayan
Classic period. Discovered in the early 16th century, Copán was partly
excavated and restored in 1839. Spanish architecture reflects Moorish,
Gothic, and, especially, Baroque styles. Modern Honduran culture has not
produced many strong representatives of its art, the country’s
widespread poverty being a major impediment. Most contemporary artists
reflect their colonial heritage, and the pre-Columbian heritage is seen
mainly in Indian crafts. Social themes may also be reflected in
paintings and literary works, the latter generally represented by poetry
and short fiction.
The family is central to Honduran daily life and society, and strong
emphasis is placed on family loyalty. Not only do family ties form a
vital part of social identity, but they provide assistance in business
and in finding one’s path through government bureaucracy and red tape.
Particularly close, trusted friends are often brought into family
circles by being designated compadres (“godparents”), an honour (and a
mark of responsibility) that is often conferred at marriages and
baptisms. In addition to religious marriages, civil ceremonies are
common, as are free unions. Many couples eventually have a religious
ceremony, but typically only after their funds allow for a grand wedding
There are many comidas típicas (“typical foods”) associated with the
various regions of the country, including sopa de hombre (“man’s soup”)
and other seafood dishes in the south, queso con chile (“cheese with
chili peppers”) in the west, and cazabe (mashed cassava) among Garifuna
in the north. Found throughout the country are such dishes as tamales
and yuca con chicharrón (fried cassava and pork). Among the poor the
dietary staple is corn, often eaten as tortillas. Beans, cassava,
plantains, and rice are common, but meat and green vegetables are not.
The gap between the wealthy (and even the middle-class) and the poor is
pronounced. Impoverished families in rural areas typically live on tiny
parcels of land, and urban poor often inhabit cramped, unsanitary rows
of dirt-floored rooms called cuarteríos.
Cultural institutions in Honduras include the National School of
Music and the Republican History Museum (founded 1993), both in
Tegucigalpa, and the Archaeological Museum of Comayagua. The Autonomous
National University of Honduras (1847) in the capital enrolls more than
30,000 students. Some other institutions produce theatrical works in
both Spanish and English.
There is general freedom of the press in Honduras, and daily
newspapers are published in the principal cities of the country. Those
of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula are the most noteworthy, and several
have Internet editions. The progressive and rapid development of radio
and television has provided the country with excellent facilities for
speedy and effective communication. There are radio and television
networks that cover the entire country.
Sports and recreation
The programming on several radio stations features rock and popular
music from the United States and Europe. Many television programs are
imported and dubbed into Spanish as well, and motion pictures are
typically Hollywood imports with Spanish subtitles. Family recreation
often revolves around religious festivals honouring local saints. On
February 3, Catholics throughout the nation celebrate the patron saint
of Honduras, the Virgin of Suyapa, named for the village near which her
venerated image was found.
Football (soccer) is a passion for many Hondurans. There is scarcely
a village that does not sponsor a team or club at some level of
competition, and international matches often arouse great emotion. The
national team has remained a strong contender; it advanced to the
semifinals in the 1998 World Cup, and it took second place at the 1999
Pan American Games after defeating the United States, Uruguay, Cuba,
Jamaica, and Canada in turn.
Many of Honduras’s better sports and recreational facilities cater to
the tourist trade. Scuba diving, swimming, and sport fishing (especially
for tarpon) are popular in the resort region around Cannon Island, on
the northern coast.
J. Roberto Moncada R
Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.
The following history of Honduras focuses on events since
European settlement. (For regional treatment, see pre-Columbian
civilizations: Mesoamerican civilization; Latin America, history of; and
When the Spanish arrived to colonize Honduras, the land was occupied
by a variety of indigenous peoples, the most advanced of whom were the
Maya. Gold stimulated Spanish conquest of the area early in the 16th
century, and the Honduran gold-mining town of Gracias became the capital
of Spanish Central America (the Audiencia de los Confines) in 1544. By
1548, however, the Spaniards had exhausted the gold, and Santiago
(Antigua Guatemala) became the new capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala.
Honduras, with its capital at Comayagua and agriculture the base of its
economy, was a province of that kingdom (audiencia) within the
Viceroyalty of New Spain. In the 1570s, a silver strike in the highlands
brought a rush of prospectors to Honduras, resulting in the rise of an
important population centre at Tegucigalpa, which competed thereafter,
especially in the 18th century, with Comayagua. However, agriculture,
the enduring economic base of Central America, was slow to develop in
Honduras. Development of Spanish society in the Honduras area was
hindered by coastal attacks from the pirates and buccaneers endemic to
the Caribbean Sea and eventually by a concerted British effort to
control the coastal areas of Central America. For long periods the
Spanish utilized a soft defense against the Caribbean threat, falling
back to the highlands and to the Pacific coastal areas, which were
generally closer to their network of communication and transportation.
Thus, the British came to control the Caribbean’s Mosquito coastal
region. The Sambo-Miskito peoples along the coast were the indispensable
allies of the British in this endeavour. In the 18th century, however,
the Spanish Bourbon kings made a sustained effort to recover the
Caribbean coastal areas, and their success in the Gulf of Honduras was
manifested by the completion of a fort at Omoa on the gulf by 1779.
Independence from Spain came in 1821 and from Mexico in 1823, when
Honduras joined in the formation of the United Provinces of Central
America. Friction between Liberal and Conservative factions soon
undermined the federation, however. In general, the Liberals favoured
republicanism, freer trade, less government regulation, removal of the
Catholic clergy’s political and economic powers, and imitation of
foreign models of development. Conservatives defended the clergy, leaned
toward monarchism, mistrusted foreign models, and were generally more
traditional and pro-Spanish in their outlook. In 1830 a Honduran
Liberal, Francisco Morazán, became president of this federation, and for
a decade he promoted Liberal policies that curtailed the traditional
power and privileges of the clergy and increased agricultural exports.
Conservative and popular opposition to Liberal policies led to the
collapse of the federation, and Honduras declared its absolute
independence on November 5, 1838. The prochurch Conservatives in
Honduras took control under Francisco Ferrera, who became the first
constitutional president on January 1, 1841. During the mid-19th
century, despite its declaration of sovereignty, Honduras supported
efforts to restore the Central American union, while its real
independence was severely limited by its more powerful neighbours.
Conservative domination lasted until the 1870s, during which time the
church regained its former position and the Honduran government signed a
concordat (1861) with the Holy See in Rome.
After 1871 the ascendancy of Justo Rufino Barrios in Guatemala
influenced a return to liberalism in Honduras, where Marco Aurelio Soto,
a Liberal, assumed the presidency (1876). In 1880 the Liberals
promulgated a new constitution that sought to undo the work of the
Conservatives, and they also moved the capital from Comayagua to
Tegucigalpa. Five years later, Liberals in Honduras and elsewhere proved
to be nationalists first and blocked an attempt by Guatemala to unify
the isthmus by force. Liberals continued to dominate the country well
into the 20th century, encouraging foreign investment and economic
growth, although Honduras remained the poorest state on the isthmus.
The 20th century
In the first decade of the 20th century, Nicaraguan strongman José
Santos Zelaya put Miguel Dávila into the Honduran presidency. This led
in 1911 and 1912 to something more serious than periodic revolutions.
The U.S. president, William Howard Taft, sent marines to protect
American banana investments, which by this time had grown considerably,
with three companies exploiting this Honduran product. All three made
large capital outlays in the form of improved port facilities,
railroads, workers’ settlements, and similar developments.
In 1918 Honduras declared war on Germany but took no active part in
World War I. Thereafter, disenchanted Liberals and Conservatives formed
the National Party to challenge continued Liberal rule. In 1932,
following political unrest and economic decline caused by the Great
Depression, National Party leader General Tiburcio Carías Andino was
elected president and remained in office until 1949. Carías’s policies,
however, differed little from Liberal political or economic policy.
Honduras declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy in December 1941.
The wartime curtailment of shipping brought much economic distress;
export surpluses of bananas, coconuts, and copra piled up, leading to
widespread unemployment and consequent unrest. But the government was
able to maintain itself, and it promulgated some beneficial reforms.
Carías survived a revolution in 1947, but he soon turned the government
over to his minister of defense, Juan Manuel Gálvez (ruled 1949–54).
Julio Lozano Díaz (1954–56) continued National Party rule, but
political turmoil and military revolt in 1957 led to the congressional
election of Ramón Villeda Morales (1957–63), a Liberal who brought some
modernization to the transportation system and to labour legislation. In
1963 Colonel Osvaldo López Arellano overthrew Villeda and declared
himself head of state, returning the National Party to power. In the
summer of 1969 the Soccer War with El Salvador broke out, triggered
indeed by a soccer (football) game but caused by severe economic and
demographic problems. Though brief, the war dampened hopes for economic
and political integration in Central America.
Honduras was ruled by military governments from 1963 until the
election of Ramón Ernesto Cruz (1971–72). Cruz’s election resulted from
the Soccer War, which Honduras had lost militarily. But López, chief of
the armed forces, retained real power, and in December 1972 he removed
Cruz from office. Pressured toward modernizing reforms by younger
military officers, López astonished many by announcing, in January 1974,
a reform program that included land redistribution. His program had
little success, however.
López was discredited and forced to resign in 1975 because of an
international bribery scandal; he was replaced by Colonel Juan Alberto
Melgar Castro (1975–78). Honduras prospered modestly under Melgar,
largely because of high earnings from the elevated world coffee market
during those years. His administration was weakened, however, by a
series of scandals.
General Policarpo Paz García, who attained power through a bloodless
military coup in late 1978, pledged to continue Melgar’s policies, but
he soon faced harder times. Central America entered a cycle of violence
with the revolution in Nicaragua that overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle
in July 1979 and the revolution in El Salvador that was under way in
that same year. Honduras appeared to be an island of stability as its
neighbours experienced guerrilla warfare. In November 1981 the country
elected a civilian government after 17 years of almost continuous
The new Honduran president, Roberto Suazo Córdova of the Liberal
Party, was a noted anticommunist who favoured strong relations with the
United States. Hopes ran high for internal improvements, but these were
dashed as Honduras became embroiled in the growing regional conflicts.
Protests grew over the presence of Nicaraguan Contras (guerrilla
fighters), who were using U.S.-sanctioned Honduran border areas as bases
for attacks against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. There was also
dissension over U.S.-run camps for training Salvadorans in
counterinsurgency to combat the growing civil war in their country.
(Honduras banned these camps in 1984.) The U.S. presence supported the
further militarization of Honduras, and Honduran army chieftain Gustavo
Álvarez Martínez appeared to be the real power there until 1984, when
younger officers loyal to Suazo ousted the chieftain amid anti-American
demonstrations in Tegucigalpa. Suazo’s government continued, however, to
cooperate with the anti-Sandinista activities of the United States, and
he received substantial economic aid in return, including U.S.
construction of airports and other military installations. In the late
1980s Honduras joined the other Central American governments in a
cooperative movement for regional peace. This brought increased pressure
to restrict Contra activity and to reduce the U.S. presence in Honduras.
The U.S. government had hoped that its relations with Honduras would
help establish the country as a model Central American democracy, but
that image was tarnished in 1986 when another Liberal, José Azcona Hoyo,
succeeded Suazo despite having received far fewer votes than the
National Party candidate, Rafael Leonardo Callejas. In 1989, however,
Callejas won election and took office in 1990, the first time in 57
years that an opposition government had taken office peacefully.
Callejas’s administration faced labour disputes, rising crime and
violence, and charges of corruption. A major conflict between
independent banana producers and Chiquita reduced banana exports in
1990, and by 1992 the annual per capita income in Honduras was only
two-fifths of what it had been prior to the conflict. Severe economic
and financial decline allowed the Liberals to sweep back to power in
1994 with Carlos Roberto Reina, whose conciliatory approach did not
solve all the nation’s problems but nevertheless gained him wider
support than Callejas had enjoyed, and the Liberals were able to win
again in November 1997. The new president, Carlos Flores Facussé, an
engineer with close ties to the United States, represented the more
conservative wing of the Liberal Party and promised to continue the
probusiness policies of his predecessors. In October 1998, however,
Hurricane Mitch, one of the worst storms to strike the Western
Hemisphere in recorded history, dumped torrential rains on the country,
washing away crops, roads, and population centres throughout Honduras.
The storm killed several thousand Hondurans, displaced in excess of a
million persons, ruined the country’s economy and infrastructure, and
caused widespread misery and unemployment. A massive international
relief effort supported the reconstruction efforts, which occupied
Honduras for the next several years.
Wayne M. Clegern
Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.
The 21st century
Ricardo Maduro Joest of the National Party won the 2001 presidential
elections. During his time in office, Honduras received debt relief and
ratified the implementation of the Central America–Dominican Republic
Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA–DR) with the United States. Manuel Zelaya of
the Liberal Party took over the presidency in 2006.
Zelaya focused on fighting crime and the ongoing drug trade in the
country. His administration extended the protection that allowed
hundreds of thousands of Hondurans to continue working legally in the
United States. Remittances from workers there accounted for about
one-fourth of the Honduran gross domestic product. A longtime boundary
dispute with Nicaragua was settled in 2007 by the United Nations, and it
resulted in Honduras gaining sovereignty over four Caribbean islands. In
2008 Honduras joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas
(Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas [ALBA; Alternativa later
changed to Alianza (“Alliance”)]), a leftist alliance formed in 2004 by
Venezuela and Cuba.
On June 28, 2009, President Zelaya was ousted in a military coup for
having forged ahead with a national referendum that, if passed, would
have allowed him to revise the constitution and serve a second
presidential term. The military and the National Congress had opposed
the referendum, which also had been declared illegal by the Supreme
Court. Later that day, after the military flew Zelaya to Costa Rica, the
National Congress voted him out of office and elected congressional
leader Roberto Micheletti as acting president. The international
community quickly condemned the ouster. The United Nations passed a
resolution that recognized Zelaya as the rightful president of Honduras.
Likewise, the Organization of American States (OAS) demanded that Zelaya
be restored to the presidency. In response, Honduras withdrew from the
latter organization. The OAS, declaring the withdrawal illegitimate
because it did not recognize Honduras’s interim government, then
unanimously voted to suspend Honduras from the group.
In July Costa Rican Pres. Oscar Arias Sánchez began mediating the
Honduran political crisis, but Zelaya and Micheletti rebuffed his
proposed solutions. Zelaya, who had been in exile mostly in Nicaragua,
furtively reentered Honduras on September 21 and sought refuge in the
Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Shortly after his return was
confirmed, thousands of his supporters gathered in front of the embassy.