The Development of Modern Honduras
The perennial instability proved a distraction to the banana companies and the U.S. government, and after the merger of United and Cuyamel in 1929, the political situation in Honduras changed. Political strongman Tiburcio Carías Andino, who belonged to the newly born Partido Nacional (National Party), was able to seize power in 1932—and retained in for 16 years.
Carías, who began his career as a military cook, was a classic example of an uneducated yet extremely shrewd and ruthless caudillo (political boss). Social developments were minimal under his rule; the military was professionalized, the opposition and media suppressed, and the fruit companies—particularly United—given a free hand.
The Cariato was the kind of time when, in the words of historians Donald Schulz and Deborah Sundloff Schulz, “members of the opposition were forbidden to travel in automobiles, the First Lady sold tamales at the Presidential Palace, and the president of Congress justified Carías’ long rule by noting that ‘God, too, continues in power indefinitely.’”
Following the end of World War II, Central American dictators had become an unnecessary embarrassment to the United States, and Carías was forced from office in 1948 in favor of protégé Juan Manuel Gálvez. Gálvez ruled for six years and began the long process of economic modernization by developing a central bank, starting a system of income tax, and expanding public works.
The Great Banana Strike
The landmark Great Banana Strike of 1954 represented the birth of Honduras’s organized labor movement, the most powerful in Central America. Although sporadic strikes occurred on banana plantations and docks as early as 1916, the 1954 strike was the first large-scale labor action that could not be quickly bought off or put down with force.
Appropriately, the actions leading to the strike began on Labor Day, May 1, 1954. A group of dock workers in Puerto Cortés asked United Fruit officials for double pay for work on Sunday, which was mandated by law. Their request was put off for several days, and in the meantime United fired their designated spokesman.
In response, the dock workers went on strike. They were soon joined by all 25,000 United workers and 15,000 Standard Fruit workers, an expression of pent-up frustration at abysmal working conditions, low pay, and cavalier treatment by banana-company officials.
The strike was supported by Hondurans throughout the country, and workers of several other industries struck out of solidarity. Lasting 69 days, the strike was eventually broken by a combination of limited concessions, payoffs to labor leaders, and the establishment of company-friendly unions in competition with the more militant ones. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a prominent role in setting up these “stooge” unions.
Although direct gains from the strike were minimal, it was a watershed for the nascent labor movement. By negotiating with the unions, both the government and the banana companies tacitly accepted their right to exist, and the following year laws were passed on union creation, collective bargaining, and the right to strike. While this may seem like a commonplace gain by a labor movement anywhere in the world, these rights were impossible to even contemplate in any of the countries neighboring Honduras.
Growth of Military Power
At the same time, a political watershed was taking place in Honduras. In the face of an incompetent and unpopular government, and partly spurred by the banana strike, a group of military officers organized a successful coup d’état on October 21, 1956.
Though elections were held the following year and the military duly turned power back over to civilians, the coup marked the beginning of military influence in the country’s politics, a defining characteristic of Honduran government for the next four decades. One indicator of this influence was two clauses in the new constitution written by the military during its brief stay in power. One allowed the head of the military to disregard orders from the president that he considered unconstitutional, and the second gave him control over all military promotions.
Following the 1957 elections, the Constitutional Assembly chose Liberal Ramón Villeda Morales as president. He quickly instituted much-needed social reforms, such as literacy projects, public health care, road-building, and agrarian reform. The agrarian reform, in particular, made Honduran landowners and fruit companies nervous (this all in the wake of the coup in Guatemala, engineered by the banana companies and the U.S. government because of agrarian reform in that country). When it appeared an even more radical Liberal would win elections after Villeda, the military again took control on October 3, 1963. Colonel Oswaldo López Arellano assumed leadership of the country, and apart from a democratic hiatus in 1971–1972, the military stayed in formal power until 1978.
The first half of military rule, until the 1969 Soccer War with El Salvador, was characterized by a suppression of communist groups and campesino organizations, but at the same time tentative agrarian and social reforms.
Following the war and the failed democratic interlude of 1971–1972, López Arellano returned to power, this time convinced of the need for real agrarian reform. Between 1973 and 1976, 31,000 families received 144,000 hectares of land through the Instituto Nacional Agrario (National Agrarian Institute). Although it did not eliminate the problems of landless workers, it was a large step in the right direction and a reform that would have been completely unimaginable in El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Guatemala at that time.
Following a scandal involving bribes paid by the banana companies to government officials, López Arellano was forced from power in March 1975. His replacement, Colonel Juan Alberto Melgar Castro, slowed the pace of reform. Melgar Castro was ousted in 1978 by a junta led by General Policarpo Paz García, who organized elections in 1981 that nominally returned civilian politicians to power.
Reagan and the Contras
Two external but related developments of extreme importance to Honduras took place shortly before the 1981 election of Liberal Roberto Suazo Córdova: the victory of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the inauguration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Viewing the world through the paranoid prism of communist-capitalist conflict, President Reagan could not tolerate the presence of the socialist-leaning Sandinistas in “his” hemisphere, and Honduras was the perfect launching pad for the U.S.-financed and -directed counterrevolution.
With the complicity of Suazo Córdova and the fascistic armed forces commander General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, the CIA at first overtly and later covertly directed a stream of training, funds, and weapons to an army of anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans living along the Honduras-Nicaragua border in Olancho and El Paraíso.
Along with the Contras, as the fighters were known, came U.S. military personnel by the hundreds and CIA agents by the dozen, using Honduras as a base not only for the Contra war but also to help the Salvadoran military in its own struggle against leftist rebels. The country had become a virtual appendage of the U.S. military.
Concurrently, the Honduran military tightened its hold over society, although the country was still a formal democracy. Álvarez ruthlessly imprisoned, tortured, killed, or “disappeared” labor activists, peasant leaders, priests, and other opponents, often using the infamous hit squad Battalion 3–16. Though the repression never reached the heights it did in El Salvador or Guatemala—victims here numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands—these strong-arm tactics were unheard of in Honduras and created widespread discontent even within the military. In 1984, Álvarez was exiled by fellow officers, and his successor, Walter López Reyes, put an end to the blatantly unsavory acts of repression. Nevertheless, the military remained in firm control behind the scenes.
By 1988, the Contra war began winding down, due to U.S. congressional opposition, the Iran-Contra affair, the Central American peace process, and Honduras’s growing unhappiness with having the Contras based inside its borders. The Contras were disbanded by early 1990, following the election of Violeta Chomorro in Nicaragua.
It bears noting that a new national constitution (Honduras’s 16th since its independence from Spain) was implemented in 1982. In an effort to close the door on dictatorships, presidential terms were reduced from six years to four. This constitution also established that the president cannot be reelected, and that certain articles—including those on the presidential term and reelectability—cannot be amended.
In the 1989 elections, Partido Nacional candidate Rafael Leonardo Callejas was swept into office by a large margin, promising a program of economic modernization.
Young, smooth Callejas believed the only way to pull Honduras out of the hole was a heavy dose of economic adjustment; that is, selling off public industries, laying off public employees, floating the exchange rate, and encouraging foreign investment. A superbly gifted politician, Callejas managed to push these measures through and generally see them through to the end of his term in 1994, in spite of widespread public and political opposition.
The results were mixed, at best. Unemployment and absolute numbers of people living in poverty rose, but defenders claim it was a necessary price for putting the country’s fiscal book in order. Critics also contend corruption and cronyism were rife throughout Callejas’s term.
The 1993 elections brought Liberal Carlos Roberto Reina to power, a long-time politician respected for his personal honesty. He took office in 1994 promising a “moral revolution” to clean up the corrupt political system. His success was limited. Corruption continued, of course, though perhaps at a lower level than before. While posting some impressive growth numbers during his term (mainly as a result of Callejas’s policies), Reina made no significant moves to cope with his country’s exploding debt.
Reina’s one great success, which came to fruition under his successor, was beginning the process of placing the nation’s then-autonomous military under civilian control.
Offering a “new agenda” of economic growth after years of neoliberal hardships, Liberal candidate Carlos Flores Facussé won the presidency in November 1997. Scion of an extremely wealthy Honduran family of Arab descent and brother of one of the country’s top businessmen, 47-year-old Flores had been assiduously building his power base within the Liberal Party for nearly two decades. Among Flores’s many business interests is ownership of La Tribuna newspaper, which has long been his mouthpiece.
Flores took office in January 1998 and spent his first year trying to gain a reprieve on the country’s seemingly impossible financial burdens. In part at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF, Flores implemented a package of austerity measures, gambling that the combination of these measures and expected debt relief would be enough to reactivate the economy. But if there ever was any hope that these measures would succeed, Hurricane Mitch blew them away in short order. Between October 1998 and the end of the presidential term, the Honduran government found itself in a near-permanent state of crisis management, unable to look beyond meeting immediate needs and trying to get the country back on its feet. Inevitably, accusations of corruption and mismanagement in reconstruction aid money were rife, despite efforts to improve transparency and implement civilian oversight.
One development, already underway before the hurricane but accelerated in its aftermath, was the increasing presence of international organizations, bilateral missions, and private foreign groups in everyday Honduran life. It seems that everywhere you turn in Honduras is a group of German resource managers, or Japanese and Cuban doctors, or agriculture projects sponsored by the IADB, USAID, DFID, GTZ, or myriad other mysterious acronyms.
The Maduro Administration
Nationalist Ricardo Maduro Joest won the elections held in November 2001 by a vote of 55.2 percent over his rival, aging Partido Liberal stalwart Rafael Pineda Ponce, with 44.2 percent, and he assumed power January 27, 2002. Fifty-five years old when he took office, Maduro presented a charismatic, modern image, complete with an attractive Spanish wife, that many Hondurans initially found very appealing.
Maduro was born in Panama to a Panamanian father and Honduran mother, a fact that the Partido Liberal tried unsuccessfully to use against him during the election campaign. His main election platform was a crusade against the country’s increasing criminality and insecurity, especially in Honduran cities. The fact that Maduro’s son was kidnapped and killed in 1997 lent credence to his impassioned rhetoric about making the streets safe again.
As president, Maduro made some moves against crime, like a dramatic upswing in high-visibility patrols in cities and on the main roads, often with police and military working together. The effect on crime rates, however, was minimal. A disciple of former president Rafael Callejas, Maduro followed fairly strict economic policies during his term.
Maduro ended his term in late January 2006 in a sorry state, disliked by much of the population for oddly personal reasons rather than his record per se. He clearly made efforts against crime, although with limited success. The economy did not exactly boom, but it didn’t bust either, and Maduro did help win the free trade agreement with the United States. It’s hard to say what it was that rubbed Hondurans the wrong way about him. Perhaps the very things that appealed to them about Maduro in the first place: his slick good looks, charm, and Spanish wife.
Perhaps it was symbolic then that his wife, Aguas, gave an interview to the Spanish magazine Hola, published the day before the end of his term, saying that she planned to divorce Maduro. The couple attended President Zelaya’s inauguration in the Estadio Nacional in Tegucigalpa and were forced to stoically face a chorus of boos when they walked in. Despite his ignominious exit, Maduro remains a highly influential member of the Partido Nacional.
Manuel “Mel” Zelaya
Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the Liberal Party won the November 2005 elections, beating National Party rival Porfirio Lobo Sosa. Scion of an Olanchano family from Catacamas, Zelaya is considered a sharply intelligent man, although he quit school before obtaining his college degree.
The election victory was narrow, with only 3.7 percent of the vote separating the two, and the Liberals fell short of a majority in Congress, meaning several smaller parties may well hold inordinate power in passing legislation. Zelaya’s “people power” campaign stressed a more transparent democracy, including a greater decentralization of decision-making power in the political system. However, his victory likely had a lot more to do with the public dislike of outgoing Maduro, as well as the excessively hard-line anticrime campaign of Lobo (spurred by an American political consultant, Mark Klugmann).
Campaign promises included a doubling of the national police force and the development of a rehabilitation program for gang members, neither of which has occurred. Instead, crime has risen notably during his tenure, linked to the increased penetration of organized crime. Some of his closest collaborators have been involved in corruption scandals.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Zelaya has moved to align himself with the leftist movement in Latin America, most notably signing the ALBA pact with Venezuela in August 2008 (described by Zelaya as a move to the center-left). Alba means “dawn,” and the initials in Spanish stand for Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Honduras became the sixth country to sign, joining Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Dominica. Sponsored by Hugo Chavez, the treaty is meant to represent a trade alternative to free trade agreements with the United States. In early 2009, Honduras received 100 tractors from Venezuela that had been promised as part of the ALBA deal.
Zelaya and his administration have faced an enormous economic challenge during his tenure: A food crisis amplified by the sharp increase in fuel prices during 2007–2008 was compounded by the worldwide economic crisis that began in the United States in late 2008.
In 2009, Zelaya campaigned heavily for a cuarta urna, or fourth ballot box, through which Hondurans would vote on the installation of a National Constituent Assembly. While the idea follows in the footsteps of the political reform seen in recent years in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, many within Honduras perceived the fight for a constituent assembly as a naked attempt by Zelaya to change the constitution so that he might stay in power for longer. A coup in June 2009 removed Zelaya from power, and the president of the Honduran Congress, Roberto Micheletti, stepped up.
At the time of writing, the political impasse generated by the coup had not been resolved, despite international mediation efforts. Presidential elections remained scheduled for November 2009. The two principal candidates are Zelaya’s old rival Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo and Elvin Santos, Zelaya’s vice president from January 2006 to December 2008, when he resigned from the post in order to run for president.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition