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's 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
Suazo relied on U.S. support to help with a severe economic recession,
the result of regional instability caused by the revolutionary Sandinista
government in Nicaragua and the chaos of the 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
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 successfully managed more than $600 million
in international assistance. Civil society's role in the government-coordinated
reconstruction process was 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 created an independent Supreme Court.
Flores cemented the transition from military to civilian rule by eliminating
the militarys commander in chief position, and by signing a law that established
a civilian Minister of Defense with formal authority 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 percentage points. 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 Maduro promised to reduce crime, reinvigorate
the economy, and fight corruption. Working to fulfill this promise, Maduros
first act as President was to deploy a joint police-military force to the
streets to permit wider neighborhood patrols in the ongoing fight against
the countrys massive crime problem. While the initial result of this policy
was overwhelmingly positive, the policy appears to have had only a minimally
positive long-term effect on the countrys crime rate. President Maduro
has been a strong supporter of the global war on terrorism and joined the
U.S.-led coalition in Iraq with a contribution of 370 troops. Under President
Maduros guidance, Honduras also participated in the successful Central
America Free Trade Agreement talks and actively promoted greater Central
American economic integration.