Background Notes: Honduras

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: May 15, 19925/15/92 Category: Country Data Region: Central America Country: Honduras Subject: Military Affairs, Cultural Exchange, Travel, History, International Organizations [TEXT] Official Name: Republic of Honduras


Area: 112,088 sq. km. (43,277 sq. mi.); about the size of Tennessee. Cities: Capital--Tegucigalpa (642,500--1988); San Pedro Sula metropolitan area (327,000). Terrain: Mountainous. Climate: Tropical to subtropical depending on elevation.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Honduran(s). Population (1991): 4.8 million. Population growth rate: 3%. Ethnic groups: 90% mestizo (mixed Indian and European); others of European, Arab, African, Asian descent; and indigenous Indians. Religions: Roman Catholic, fast-growing Protestant minority. Language: Spanish. Education: Years compulsory--6. Attendance--70% overall, but less than 16% at junior high level. Literacy--68%. Health: Infant mortality rate--60/1,000. Life expectancy--63 yrs. Work force (20% of the work force is organized in urban unions and rural federations). GDP (1990): Services-- 42%. Natural resources--29%. Manufactures--16%. Construction/Housing--10%.
Type: Democratic constitutional republic. Independence: September 15, 1821. Most recent constitution: 1982. Branches: Executive--president, directly elected to 4-yr. term. Legislative--unicameral National Congress, elected for 4- year term. Judicial--Supreme Court of Justice (appointed by Congress and confirmed by the President), several courts of original jurisdiction. Registered political parties: Liberal Party, National Party, Innovation and Unity Party, and Christian Democratic Party. Suffrage: Universal adult. Administrative subdivisions: 18 departments. Flag: Two blue horizontal bands separated by a white center stripe with five blue stars.
GDP (1991): $2.5 billion. Real growth rate (1991): 2%. Real Per capita GDP (1991): $516. Inflation rate (1991): 23%. Natural resources: Arable land, hydroelectric power, forests, minerals, fisheries. Agriculture (26% of GDP): Main products--bananas, coffee, shrimp, sugar, fruits, basic grains, livestock. Industry (15% of GDP): Types--textiles and apparel, cement, wood products, cigars, foodstuffs. Trade (1990): Exports--$915 million (f.o.b.): bananas, citrus fruits, coffee, lead/zinc concentrates, shrimp, beef, lumber, and sugar. Major market--US (50%). Imports--$1 billion: petroleum, manufactured goods, machinery, chemicals. Major supplier--US (40%). Official exchange rate (1992): 5.40 Lempira=US$1. Fiscal year: Calendar year.


About 90% of the population is mestizo. There also are small minorities of European, African, Oriental, and American Indian descent. Most Hondurans are Roman Catholic. Spanish is the predominant language, although some English is spoken along the northern coast and on the Caribbean Bay Islands. Native Indian dialects and Garifuna are also spoken. Honduras offers some of the most impressive examples of Mayan culture, especially the Copan ruins near the Guatemalan border, and artifacts in the National Museum in Tegucigalpa. Several Honduran authors achieved international prominence in the early 20th century, notably the modernist Juan Ramon Molina, and the poets Roberto Sosa and Daniel Lainez. Recent years have seen notable achievement in the plastic arts. The painter Jose Antonio Velasquez is famous for his brightly colored primitives, as is Roque Zelaya. There are small but active cultural communities that sponsor poetry readings, art exhibits, and musical events at the National University and at the Manuel Bonilla National Theater in Tegucigalpa and in the Cultural Center of San Pedro Sula.


Honduras has obvious similarities in language, culture, customs, and religion with its Central American neighbors. However, its historical and evolutionary pattern of development has been quite different. Since the Spanish colonists based their empire in Central America on the Meso-American Indian civilizations and their trading partners to the south, they tended to neglect Honduras. This neglect caused difficulties long after the five Central American republics gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. The disparity between the socio-political and economic development of Honduras and its regional neighbors exacerbated harsh partisan battles among provincial leaders, resulting in the collapse of the Central American Federation in 1838. The Honduran national hero, Gen. Francisco Morazan, was a leader in unsuccessful efforts to maintain this federation. Until 1922, the chief aim of Honduran foreign policy was to restore Central American unity. Honduras has had difficulty establishing a stable government. Since independence, the country has been plagued with nearly 300 internal rebellions, civil wars, and changes of government, more than half occurring during this century. Moreover, with a severe lack of economic infrastructure and socio-political integration, Honduras did not enjoy the social or economic advantages of nationalism, central decision making, or substantial private investment. During the relatively stable but austere years of the Great Depression, Honduras was controlled by a harsh authoritarian, Gen. Tiburcio Carias Andino, whose ties to dictators in neighboring countries and to the US banana companies on the North Coast enabled him to maintain power until 1948. By then, provincial military leaders had begun to gain control of the two major parties, the Nationalists and the Liberals. After two more authoritarian civilian administrations controlled by the National Party and a general strike by banana workers on the North Coast in 1954, young military reformists staged a palace coup in October 1955 that installed a provisional junta and paved the way for constituent assembly elections in 1957. This assembly, led by the opposition Liberal Party, appointed Dr. Ramon Villeda Morales as president and transformed itself into a national legislature for a 6-year term. The Liberal Party and its tenets flourished during this time. Simultaneously, the military took steps for the first time to become a professional institution independent of leadership from any one political party. The newly created military academy graduated its first class in 1960. These changes were particularly striking during the civilian presidency of Ramon Villeda Morales (1957-63). However, in October 1963, conservative military officers preempted constitutional elections and deposed Villeda in a bloody coup. The military officers exiled Liberal Party members and took control of the national police, which they organized into a special security force. The armed forces, led by Gen. Lopez Arellano and supported by the National Party, governed until 1982. A civilian president, Ramon Cruz (National Party), took power briefly in 1970, but proved unable to manage the government. Popular discontent had continued to rise after the 1969 border war with El Salvador, and, in December 1972, Lopez staged another coup. After 1972, Gen. Lopez adopted more progressive policies, including land reform. Nonetheless, his regime was finally brought down in the mid-1970s by successive scandals. The government reportedly misused international emergency aid after Hurricane Fifi ravaged the North Coast in 1974 and government officials were accused of accepting a large bribe in 1974 from the United Brands Company in exchange for reduced taxes on banana exports. This scandal, known as "Bananagate" in the United States, led to the suicide of United Brands President Eli Black. Gen. Lopez' proteges continued armed forces modernization programs in the ensuing years, building army and security forces and concentrating on an air force superior to its neighbors. The successive 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 buoyant international demand conditions and the availability of foreign commercial lending. During this time, the military moved slowly toward returning the country to civilian rule. However, following the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979 and the generalized instability in El Salvador during the same period, culminating in the October 1979 reformist coup there, military plans to return the country to civilian rule were accelerated. 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 Government of President Roberto Suazo Cordoba (Liberal Party) assumed power. Suazo relied on US support to confront the challenges of a severe economic recession, the threat posed by the new revolutionary Marxist government in Nicaragua, and 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 US Agency for International Development (USAID). Honduras became host to the largest Peace Corps mission in the world, and nongovernmental and international voluntary agencies proliferated. Most important, with strong endorsement and support from the Honduran military, the Suazo Administration ushered in the first peaceful transfer of power between civilian presidents in more than 30 years when newly elected Jose Azcona Hoyo (also a Liberal) assumed the presidency in January 1986. The Liberal Party gained power through an idiosyncrasy of the electoral law, which gave the presidency to the candidate with the most votes from the party with the highest combined number of votes rather than the single candidate with the greatest plurality. National Party candidate Rafael Callejas (with 42% of the vote) peacefully conceded defeat to Azcona, whose Liberal Party won more than 50% of the vote with several candidates running (Azcona himself had won only 27% of the national vote). President Rafael Leonardo Callejas took office in January 1990, following election to a 4-year term of office in November 1989. Callejas' National Party won a majority in the unicameral National Congress, which also serves a 4-year term. One of Callejas' first acts as President was to have the Congress enact an economic reform package intended to reduce the deficit and effect widespread structural reforms. The government also took steps to address the over-valued exchange rate and major structural barriers to investment and the development of new exports. In 1990 and 1991, these needed reforms produced higher rates of inflation, while the uneven administration of the reform program resulted in lower rates of economic growth. However, the expectations for 1992 and 1993 are for modest levels of growth and lower levels of inflation. Politically, the Callejas Administration has maintained good relations with the armed forces, still a powerful institution in Honduras. Meanwhile, the National Congress has become more independent, expressing views on both domestic and external policy. There are no known political prisoners, and the privately owned media frequently exercises its right to criticism (even of the most sensational sort) without fear of reprisals. Organized labor represents less than 20% of the work force but has considerable economic and political influence. Reinforced by the media and several political watchdog organizations, human rights and civil liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of labor and political organization are reasonably well protected. While the historically dominant military now plays a less intrusive role in the country's civilian government, it still operates with a great deal of institutional and legal autonomy, particularly in the realm of security and military affairs. Although the Callejas Administration has taken some initiatives to improve the human rights situation, it has yet to ensure that human rights violations are fully investigated and that perpetrators of those violations, whether members of the military or civilians, are prosecuted in a court of law.


The 1982 constitution continues the Honduran tradition of a strong executive, a unicameral legislature (the National Congress), and a judiciary appointed by the National Congress. The president is elected to a 4-year term directly by popular vote. Congressional seats are assigned proportionally to the parties' candidates according to the number of votes each party receives. The judiciary includes a Supreme Court of Justice, courts of appeal, and several courts of original jurisdiction, such as labor, tax, and criminal courts. For administrative purposes, Honduras is divided into 18 departments, with departmental and municipal officials elected for 2-year terms. The president, members of Congress, mayors, and other municipal officials are elected to 4-year terms.
Principal Government Officials
President--Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero Minister of Foreign Relations--Mario Carias Zapata Ambassador to the US--Jorge Ramon Hernandez Alcerro Ambassador to the UN--Roberto Flores Bermudez Ambassador to the OAS--Juan Cueva Membreno Honduras maintains an embassy in the United States at 4301 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 100, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202- 966-7700).


The two major parties (Liberal and National), run active campaigns throughout the country. Their ideologies are primarily centrist, particularly regarding national security issues and foreign policy. On domestic policy, the diverse factions within the Liberal Party tend to pull the party leftward from the center-right Nationalists, offering more populist rhetoric--if not concrete programs--than their conservative opponents. The coalition-style Liberal/National government pact of 1986 has since disappeared in the politics which have preceded the upcoming election year. Nevertheless, the two major parties in the legislature continue to cooperate on many national issues. The two smaller registered parties, the Christian Democrats and the Innovation and Unity Party, remain marginal left-of-center groupings with few campaign resources and little organization. Despite significant progress in training and installing more skillful advisers at the top of each party ladder, electoral politics in Honduras remain traditionalist and paternalistic. Leftist leaders who recently returned from exile now pursue their political objectives via legitimate avenues. Rigoberto Padilla Rush, the repatriated head of the Honduran Communist Party, is involved in an effort to form the left-leaning "Patriotic Renovation Party" as a vehicle for his continuing political ambitions.


Honduras is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. The economy is based primarily on agriculture, but there are extensive forest, marine, and mineral resources. Although unemployment officially is estimated at 12%, actual underemployment is perhaps as high as 30-40%. During the 1980s, Honduras' economy was battered by regional instability, unfavorable terms of trade, and the unwillingness of successive governments to adopt appropriate economic policies. After the severe recession of the early 1980s, Honduras achieved moderate but steady economic growth, partly due to sizable US economic assistance. During the late 1980s, the economy experienced strong growth, sparked by the mining, construction, and service sectors and was supported by large transfers of foreign assistance, particularly from the United States. In 1990, the Callejas Administration undertook a far-reaching economic adjustment program with structural reforms geared to the restoration of balance-of-payments equilibrium, control of inflationary pressures, clearance of outstanding arrears with multilateral creditors, and the establishment of a solid productive base to enhance sustainable economic growth, through the active participation of the private sector. The government deregulated restrictive pricing and marketing mechanisms, liberalized trade, reduced the fiscal deficit, and sharply devalued the Lempira. These dramatic reforms have created a stronger foundation for long-term economic growth. However, the short-term effects, particularly a reduction in disposable income and increased urban unemployment, have been painful for the majority of Hondurans. After a decline in 1990, the economy grew by 2% in 1991. Inflation, which has traditionally been low by Latin America standards, surged to 35% in 1990 but dropped to 23% in 1991. Honduras is also moving from protectionism to greater openness in trade and from import substitution to an export orientation. Agriculture, which is expected to provide the motor for this country's export-led growth, grew by 4% in real terms, despite serious late year flooding and a prolonged strike against the Chiquita Banana Company. Manufacturing grew 3%, while other major categories experienced declines. Honduras paid some $250 million in arrears to international financial institutions (IFIs) in June 1990, with the help of a bridge loan from the US and financing from the World Bank, IMF, Japan, and Venezuela. The United States is Honduras' chief trading partner, supplying about 40% of its imports and purchasing about half of its exports. Leading Honduran exports to the United States include coffee, bananas, other fruits and vegetables, seafood, and beef. Coffee and bananas alone contribute 62% of Honduran export revenues. The United States accounts for about 85% of total direct foreign investment in Honduras, worth about $230 million. The largest US investments in Honduras are in fruit (particularly banana and citrus) production, petroleum refining/marketing, and mining. In addition, US corporations have invested in tobacco, shrimp culture, beef, poultry and animal-feed production, insurance, leasing, food processing, brewing, and furniture manufacturing. Environmentally, slash-and-burn agricultural methods continues to destroy Honduran forests. There is a growing awareness on the part of Hondurans of the need to confront the problem. The armed forces has become more involved in environmental issues ranging from reforestation projects to forest fire-fighting.


President Callejas is considered one of the leaders of regional integration efforts. Hondurans view regional political harmony as a prerequisite for meaningful economic integration. The government proposed in July 1991 a plan to revitalize the stalled Central American Security Commission (CASC) treaty on arms control in Central America. Honduras also played an active role in launching the Partnership for Democracy and Development and can be expected to support and benefit from its initiatives. Honduras and El Salvador signed a treaty in 1980 ending the state of war that had existed since the 1969 "Soccer War." The two countries agreed to litigation in the International Court of Justice at The Hague over the final boundary between their countries. The decision is expected in early 1992. Despite indications it may do so, Nicaragua has yet to drop its International Court of Justice suit against Honduras for support of the Nicaraguan Resistance. Virtually all refugees from Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been repatriated.


Honduras traditionally has sought to protect itself by maintaining a strong air force. The dramatic increase in the size and capability of the Nicaraguan military in the 1980s increased Honduran concern with security on its southern border. Honduras' opposition to radical leftist forces in the area made the country a target for subversive and terrorist attacks. In response to these threats, Honduras concentrated on developing a mobile deterrent force with a strong counter terrorism capability. The 24,000-strong Honduran Armed Forces, which include the army, navy, air force and police, moved toward acceptance of civilian authority in the 1980s. In 1990, the armed forces accepted severe budget cuts as a part of the government's economic reform program. With the resolution of the Nicaraguan civil war and the signing of the peace accords in El Salvador, it is likely that the military will see its budget further reduced. Honduras has submitted a draft regional arms control treaty for consideration by its neighbors.


Honduras has been a staunch friend of the United States in times of great regional tensions. Throughout the tumultuous 1980s, Honduras shared US policy objectives of resisting the threats posed by a revolutionary Marxist government in neighboring Nicaragua and an active leftist insurgency in El Salvador. The Honduran Government played a key role in negotiations which culminated in the 1990 Nicaraguan elections. Both the United States and Honduras have expressed a desire to maintain these ties of friendship and common purpose. The United States cooperates with Honduras in efforts to achieve sustained economic, political, and social development and to combat drug trafficking throughout the region. It encourages the responsible participation of US investment that contributes to Honduran development and bilateral trade. The United States favors stable, peaceful relations between Honduras and its Central American neighbors. Facing various economic needs and growing security concerns, Honduras attaches significant importance to US material assistance and political support--the most visible manifestation being the conduct of joint military exercises. During 1991, official US assistance to Honduras fell to $144.8 million from $192 million in 1989, a trend which is expected to continue. In September 1991, the US announced its decision to forgive $434 million in bilateral debt under USAID and PL-480 programs. This forgiveness, the largest to date in Latin America, eliminated 96% of Honduras' bilateral debt to the US. To make up for falling levels of bilateral economic aid, Honduras is also exploring opportunities to increase its exports to the US and elsewhere. USAID and the US Information Agency are active in Honduras. The Peace Corps has some 260 volunteers, with programs primarily in health, education, and forestry.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--Cresencio S. Arcos Deputy Chief of Mission--James C. Cason Consul General--Fernando Sanchez USAID Director--Marshall Brown US Information Service--Terry Kneebone US Defense Attache--Col. Charles Hogan US Military Group Commander--Col. Larry Gragg The US Embassy in Honduras is located on Avenida La Paz, Tegucigalpa. Tel. (504) 32-3120, Fax: (504) 32-0027.


Climate and clothing: Tegucigalpa's climate is fresh and spring- like--tropical during the day and cool at night--except from mid- November to February, when the days are cooler. March, April, and May are hot and dry, with considerable smoke in the air from slash- and-burn agriculture. The rainy season begins in mid-May and continues through mid-October. Heavy showers fall once or twice a day, with rains which tend to be heavier toward the end of the rainy season. Customs: Americans must have a passport. Visas are not required for bearers of US diplomatic, official, or regular passports for tourist or business visits of under 60 days. The Honduran Embassy or consulates issue visas and answer queries regarding tourism in Honduras. In general, no immunizations are required for entry. Health: Water must be boiled and filtered and often is in short supply during the dry season. Fruits and vegetables must be cleaned carefully and meats cooked well. The main health hazards include rabies and various intestinal diseases, including typhoid, hepatitis, parasites, and dysentery. There have been reports of cholera as well, although not in epidemic proportions. Take a malaria suppressant if traveling outside Tegucigalpa. Tourist attractions: Honduras offers pre-Columbian Mayan ruins at Copan, pristine beaches on the North shore, scenery with volcanoes and mountains, and sailing and scuba diving in the coral reef off the Bay Islands. Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC -- April 1992 -- Editor: Peter A. Knecht. Department of State Publication 7798. Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.(###)