U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BACKGROUND NOTES: HONDURAS
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Official Name: Republic of Honduras
Area: 112,100 sq. km. (43,270 sq. mi.); about the size of Tennessee.
Cities: Capital--Tegucigalpa (642,500); San Pedro Sula metropolitan
Climate: Tropical to subtropical, depending on elevation.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Honduran(s).
Population (1993): 5.2 million.
Growth rate: 3%.
Ethnic groups: 90% mestizo (mixed Indian and European); others of
European, Arab, African, or Asian ancestry; and indigenous Indians.
Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant minority.
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: Services--32%. Natural resources/agriculture--38%.
Type: Democratic constitutional republic.
Independence: September 15, 1821.
Branches: Executive--president, directly elected to four-year term.
Legislative--unicameral National Congress, elected for four-year term.
Judicial--Supreme Court of Justice (appointed by Congress and confirmed
by the president); several lower courts.
Political parties: Liberal Party, National Party, Innovation and Unity
Party, and Christian Democratic Party.
Suffrage: Universal adult.
Administrative subdivisions: 18 departments.
GDP: $2.8 billion.
Growth rate: 3.2%.
Per capita GDP: $540.
Natural resources: Arable land, forests, minerals, fisheries.
Agriculture (26% of GDP): Products--bananas, coffee, shrimp, sugar,
fruits, basic grains, livestock.
Industry (15% of GDP): Types--textiles and apparel, cement, wood
products, cigars, foodstuffs.
Trade: Exports--$866 million: bananas, citrus fruits, coffee,
lead/zinc concentrates, shrimp, beef, lumber, sugar. Major market--U.S.
(50%). Imports--$1.3 billion: petroleum, manufactured goods,
machinery, chemicals. Major supplier--U.S. (45%).
Exchange rate (1994): 9 lempira=U.S. $1.
PEOPLE AND HISTORY
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 proselytization has
resulted in significant numbers of converts. Spanish is the predominant
language, although some English is spoken along the northern coast and
on the Caribbean Bay Islands. Indigenous Indian dialects and the
Garifuna dialect also are spoken.
The restored Mayan ruins near the Guatemalan border in Copan reflect the
great Mayan culture that arose in the fourth century. Mayan artifacts
also can be found at the National Museum in Tegucigalpa. This culture
had declined by the time Columbus sighted the region in 1502, naming it
"Honduras" (meaning "depths") for the deep water off the coast.
Spaniard Hernan Cortes arrived in 1524. The Spanish began founding
settlements along the coast, and Honduras came under the control of the
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; it then briefly was annexed to the
Mexican Empire. In 1823, Honduras joined the newly formed United
Provinces of Central America. Before long, though, 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 this century. The country traditionally lacked both an
economic infrastructure and social and political integration. Its
agriculturally based economy came to be dominated 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, Honduras was
controlled by the harshly authoritarian Gen. Tiburcio Carias Andino.
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 civilian National Party
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, led by the opposition Liberal Party,
appointed Dr. Ramon Villeda Morales as President and transformed itself
into a national legislature with a six-year term. The Liberal Party and
its tenets flourished 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.
But 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 and supported by
the National Party, governed until 1970.
A civilian president--Ramon Cruz of the National Party--took power
briefly in 1970 but proved unable to manage the government. Popular
discontent had continued to rise after a 1969 border war with El
Salvador, and, in December 1972, General Lopez staged another coup.
Lopez adopted more progressive policies, including land reform, but his
regime was brought down in the mid-1970s by scandals.
General 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 General Melgar
Castro (1975-78) and General 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 assumed
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 and 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 non-governmental 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 collectively
outpolled the National Party candidate, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, who
received 42% of the vote. Jose Azcona Hoyo, the candidate receiving the
most votes (27%) among the Liberals, assumed the presidency in January
1986. With strong endorsement and support from the Honduran military,
the Suazo administration had ushered in the first peaceful transfer of
power between civilian presidents in more than 30 years.
President Callejas took office in January 1990, following November 1989
elections. Callejas' National Party also won a majority in the
unicameral National Congress. One of Callejas' first acts as President
was to have the Congress enact an economic reform package aimed at
reducing the deficit and effecting widespread structural reforms. The
government also took steps to deal with an overvalued exchange rate,
major structural barriers to investment, and developing new exports.
The 1982 constitution provides for a strong executive, a unicameral
National Congress, and a judiciary appointed by the National Congress.
The president is directly elected to a four-year term by popular vote.
The congress also serves a four-year term; congressional seats are
assigned the parties' candidates in proportion 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
Events during the 1980s in El Salvador and Nicaragua led Honduras, with
U.S. assistance, to expand its armed forces considerably, laying
particular emphasis on its air force, which came to include a squadron
of U.S.-provided F-5s. The resolution of the civil wars in El Salvador
and Nicaragua and across-the-board budget cuts made in all ministries
have brought reduced funding for the Honduran armed forces and left them
seeking new missions, such as protection of the environment. The
military now is well below its authorized 24,000 strength, and further
reductions are expected.
Despite the Callejas administration's economic reforms, growing public
dissatisfaction with the rising cost of living and with seemingly
widespread government corruption led voters in 1993 to elect Liberal
Party candidate Carlos Roberto Reina over Nationalist Party contender
Oswaldo Ramos Soto, with Reina winning 56% of the vote.
President Reina was sworn in January 27, 1994, promising a "Moral
Revolution" to curb corruption. He has taken some steps to implement
that policy, but much remains to be done. His government has been
preoccupied by the need to meet a fiscal deficit crisis and an energy
crisis, both inherited from the previous administration. Reina's
Liberal Party has an absolute majority in the congress but is highly
Although there has been some improvement in recent years, members of the
civilian and military elites still largely enjoy de facto impunity from
criminal prosecution and from civil lawsuits. Honduran courts often are
ineffective in protecting property and other rights, including the
property rights of American citizens and other foreigners.
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 security and
military affairs. The armed forces have answered less to the president
of the republic--despite his formal title of supreme commander--than to
their own "commander-in-chief," an active-duty officer chosen by a
collegium of senior officers and nominally subject to congressional
confirmation. President Reina has indicated that he plans to make the
president's role as supreme commander more effective.
There are no known political prisoners in Honduras, and the privately
owned media frequently exercises its right to criticism without fear of
reprisals. Reinforced by the media and several political watchdog
organizations, human rights and civil liberties are reasonably well
protected. Organized labor represents less than 20% of the work force
but has considerable economic and political influence.
The two major parties--the Liberal Party and the National Party--run
active campaigns throughout the country. Their ideologies are mostly
centrist, especially on national security issues and foreign policy. On
domestic policy, diverse factions in the Liberal Party tend to pull it
leftward, away from the center-right Nationalists.
The two smaller registered parties, the Christian Democratic Party 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.
Principal Government Officials
President--Carlos Roberto Reina Idiaquez
Minister of Foreign Relations--Ernesto Paz Aguilar
Ambassador to the U.S.--Roberto Flores Bermudez
Ambassador to the UN--Gerardo Martinez Blanco
Ambassador to the OAS--Madeleine Villela de Talbot
Honduras maintains an embassy in the United States at 3007 Tilden Street
NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-966-7702).
Honduras is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin
America. The economy is based mostly on agriculture, which accounts for
26% of GDP; coffee and bananas contribute more than 50% to Honduran
export revenues. Honduras has extensive forest, marine, and mineral
resources. Slash-and-burn agricultural methods continue to destroy
Honduran forests. Hondurans are becoming more concerned about their
environmental problems. The armed forces have become more involved in
environmental issues, ranging from reforestation projects to forest-fire
fighting. Unemployment officially is estimated at 12%, but actual
underemployment may be as high as 40%.
After a severe recession in the early 1980s, Honduras achieved moderate
but steady economic 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.
Its structural reforms were geared to:
-- Restore the balance-of-payments equilibrium;
-- Control inflationary pressures;
-- Clear outstanding arrears with multilateral creditors; and
-- Establish a solid production base to encourage sustainable economic
growth through the participation of the private sector.
It also deregulated restrictive pricing and marketing mechanisms,
liberalized trade, reduced the fiscal deficit, and sharply devalued the
lempira. These dramatic reforms created a stronger foundation for long-
term economic growth, but short-term effects--particularly a reduction
in disposable income and increased urban unemployment--were painful for
the majority of Hondurans.
During 1993, President Callejas' last year in office, runaway public
spending led to a massive increase in the fiscal deficit and a
resurgence of inflationary pressures. In the first six months of 1994,
Honduras saw 19% inflation, which exceeded that for all of 1993. The
economic difficulties were compounded by the onset of an unprecedented
energy crisis caused in part by drought.
The Reina administration, which inherited the inflation and energy
crises in 1994, has devised a deficit reduction package and is getting
international firms to invest in the energy sector. For 1994, the
deficit and energy shortages were projected to cause a 2%-4% decline in
real GDP and to push inflation above 30%. The adoption of economic
stabilization measures and the energy investments should improve the
economy and lower inflation somewhat in 1995.
Honduras is a member of the United Nations, the General Agreement on
Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Organization of American States (OAS), the
Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), the Central American Integration
System (SICA), and the Central American Security Commission (CASC).
President Reina consults frequently with the other Central American
Presidents on issues of mutual interest. Despite indications it may do
so, Nicaragua has yet to drop its International Court of Justice suit
against Honduras for support during the 1980s of the Nicaraguan
Resistance. Reina is continuing his predecessor's strong emphasis on
Central American cooperation and integration, which under President
Callejas resulted in an agreement easing border controls and tariffs
among Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
In July 1969, El Salvador and Honduras fought the brief "Soccer War"
over disputed border areas and friction resulting from the 300,000
Salvadorans who had emigrated to Honduras in search of land and
employment. The catalyst was nationalistic feelings aroused by a series
of soccer matches between the two countries. The two countries formally
signed a peace treaty on October 30, 1980, which put the border dispute
before the International Court of Justice. In September 1992, the court
awarded much of the disputed land to Honduras. A Honduran-Salvadoran
binational commission is addressing issues such as citizenship and
physical demarcation of the border resulting from the ICJ decision. El
Salvador and Honduras maintain normal diplomatic and trade relations.
Honduras is a firm ally of the United States and generally supports U.S.
policy in the UN and other forums. The U.S. favors stable, peaceful
relations between Honduras and its Central American neighbors. During
the 1980s, Honduras supported U.S. policy in Central America opposing a
revolutionary Marxist government in Nicaragua and an active leftist
insurgency in El Salvador. The Honduran Government also played a key
role in negotiations that culminated in the 1990 Nicaraguan elections.
Honduras offered to accept Haitian and Cuban refugees and offered troops
for a UN peace-keeping mission in Haiti to follow the departure of the
1991 Haiti coup leaders.
The U.S. works with Honduras for sustained economic, political, and
social development and to combat drug trafficking in the region.
Because of economic needs and security concerns, U.S. material
assistance and political support are important to Honduras. USAID is
active in Honduras, although official U.S. assistance to the country has
been reduced--from $51 million in 1993 to $35 million in 1994--due to
worldwide reductions in U.S. bilateral assistance.
To make up for lower levels of bilateral economic aid, Honduras is
exploring opportunities to increase its exports to the U.S. and
elsewhere. The United States is Honduras' chief trading partner,
supplying 45% 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.
The United States encourages U.S. investment that contributes to
Honduran development and bilateral trade. The United States accounts
for about 85% of total direct foreign investment in Honduras; this is
worth about $300 million. The largest U.S. investments in Honduras are
in fruit--particularly banana and citrus--production, petroleum refining
and marketing, and mining. In addition, U.S. corporations have invested
in tobacco, maquila, shrimp culture, beef, poultry and animal-feed
production, insurance, leasing, food processing, brewing, and furniture
The U.S. maintains a small presence at a Honduran military base; the two
countries conduct joint military exercises. The U.S. Information
Service has an active program in Honduras. About 200 Peace Corps
volunteers work in health, education, agriculture, small business
development, and forestry.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--William T. Pryce
Deputy Chief of Mission--James C. Cason
Consul General--Fernando Sanchez
USAID Director--Marshall Brown
Public Affairs (USIS)--Mark Krischik
Defense Attache--Col. William Brown
Military Group Commander--Col. Glenn Weidner
Commercial Attache--Michael McGee
The U.S. embassy in Honduras is located on Avenida La Paz, Tegucigalpa
(tel.: 011-504-36-9320; faxes: general--011-504-36-9037, USAID--011-
504-36-7776, USIS--011-504-36-9309, Military Group--001-504-33-6171,
Return to Western Hemisphere Background Notes Archive
Return to Background Notes Archive Homepage
Return to Electronic Research Collection Homepage