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. Mayan artifacts also can be found at the National Museum in Tegucigalpa. Columbus landed at mainland Honduras (Trujillo) in 1502. He named 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, 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 in this century 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. 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; 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 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 assumed 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 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. 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 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 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. As a result, a notable start was made in institutionalizing the rule of law in Honduras.
A hallmark of the Reina Administration was his successful efforts to increase civilian control over the armed forces, making his time in office a period of fundamental change in civil-military relations in Honduras. Important achievements -- including the abolition of the military draft and passage of legislation transferring the national police from military to civilian authority -- have brought civil-military relations closer to the kind of balance normal in a constitutional democracy. Additionally, President Reina in 1996 named his own defense minister, breaking the precedent of accepting the nominee of the armed forces leadership.
Reina restored national fiscal health. After a rough start in 1994-95, the Reina administration substantially increased Central Bank net international reserves, reduced inflation to 12.8% a year, restored a healthy pace of economic growth (about 5% in 1997), and, perhaps most important, held down spending to achieve a 1.1% non-financial public sector deficit in 1997.
Carlos Roberto Flores Facusse took office on January 27, 1998, as Honduras' fifth democratically elected President since free elections were restored in 1981. Like three of his four predecessors, including his immediate predecessor, Flores is a member of the Liberal Party. He was elected with a 10% margin over his main opponent -- National Party nominee Nora de Melgar -- in free, fair, and peaceful elections on November 30, 1997. These elections, probably the cleanest in Honduran history, reflected the maturing of Honduras' democratic institutions. 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. International donors came forward to assist in rebuilding infrastructure, and the Honduran Government has been fairly transparent in the management of relief funds.