The History of Honduras
Below is a brief history of Honduras. To find information other than history for Honduras then visit
the Honduras Country Page.
About 90% of the population is mestizo. There also are small minorities of European, African, Asian, Arab, and indigenous Indian descent. Most Hondurans are Roman Catholic, but Protestant churches are growing in number. Spanish is the predominant language, although some English is spoken along the northern coast and is prevalent on the Caribbean Bay Islands. Several indigenous Indian languages and Garifuna (a black Caribe/African language) also are spoken. The restored Mayan ruins near the Guatemalan border in Copan reflect the great Mayan culture that flourished there for hundreds of years until the early 9th century. Columbus landed at mainland Honduras (Trujillo) in 1502. He named the area "Honduras" (meaning "depths") for the deep water off the coast. Spaniard Hernan Cortes arrived in 1524. The Spanish founded several settlements along the coast, and Honduras formed part of the colonial era Captaincy General of Guatemala. The cities of Comayagua and Tegucigalpa developed as early mining centers.
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 occurring 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 was 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. Working to fulfill this promise, Maduro’s first act as President was to deploy more than 5,000 soldiers to the streets to support the police in the ongoing fight against the country’s massive crime problem. While the initial reaction to this policy was overwhelmingly positive, the soldiers’ presence appears to have had only a minimally positive effect on the country’s crime rate. The recent suspension of Nicaragua’s 35% tariff on Honduran goods is a positive step for Central American economic integration and is seen as a victory for the Maduro administration.