HONDURAS AT A GLANCE
Human occupation of what is now Honduras began between 9000 and 7000 B.C. These original inhabitants were nomadic hunters. Agriculture in the region began about 6,000 years ago, when people began to gather in villages. The Maya Indians settled in western Honduras around 1000 B.C. and developed an important network of communities centered around the city of Copán. Archaeological remains tell the story of a civilization that grew slowly from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 800, greatly expanded, and then collapsed around A.D. 900. The civilization‘s descendants, the Maya Chortí, inhabit the region today.
The European invasion of Honduras began in 1502 with the fourth and last voyage of Christopher Columbus. He arrived on the island of Guanaja, which he called Isla de Pinos (Pine Island). Before the arrival of the Spaniards, Honduras was heavily populated with an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people. However, slavery and diseases (e.g., smallpox) diminished the population to fewer than 20,000 in less than 100 years.
Additional Spanish expeditions to Honduras occurred in 1524 and 1525, including one from Mexico commanded by Hernán Cortés. The occupiers appointed a governor, but the native population of Lenca Indians would not accept colonialism without a war. Lempira, the chief of the Lencas, led 30,000 Indians against the Spaniards on several occasions until 1536. During peace talks, he was betrayed and assassinated, and Indian resistance was quickly suffocated. The Spanish colonization brought not only new kinds of people—from Spaniards to African slaves—but also new species of plants and animals. The Spaniards introduced cattle and horses to the New World and took tobacco, coffee, maize, potatoes, and cacao to the Old World. In time, gold and silver mining techniques were introduced, large cattle ranches and plantations were developed, and new towns and fields emerged from the forests.
Central America gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and within a short time various factions developed. During this period, Central America was briefly annexed to Mexico, and then withdrew to join the newly formed United Provinces of Central America. However, conservative politicians in the Central American government who rejected the plan invaded Honduras in 1826. Francisco Morazán, a liberal, repelled the invasion and took control, but efforts to maintain the union were unsuccessful. In 1838, the countries decided to go their separate ways. Honduras signed a new constitution in 1839. Its first capital was Comayagua. In 1880, President Marco Aurelio Soto moved the capital to Tegucigalpa, in part because his Guatemalan Indian wife was not accepted by the high society of Comayagua. Another factor in the rise of Tegucigalpa was its great mineral wealth of gold and silver.
Since independence, Honduras has suffered nearly 300 internal rebellions, civil wars, coups d’état, and changes of government, more than half of which took place during the 20th century. The country has also been the target of foreign intervention, the most famous being that of U.S. soldier William Walker, who appointed himself president of Nicaragua in 1860 and aimed to take over the rest of Central America. His campaign ended in failure, and he was executed in Trujillo.
As a result of its infamous banana companies and ―banana wars, Honduras was known as the Banana Republic. When banana production dominated the economy, these companies had great influence in local politics. In 1913, for example, the Standard Fruit Company and the Cuyamel Fruit Company owned 75 percent of the nation‘s banana plantations and nearly 100 percent of its politicians. While the banana companies built railroads and seaports, little of their wealth remained in Honduras.
Honduras‘ governmental structure is similar to that of the United States. The Constitution of 1982 provides for a strong executive branch, a unicameral National Congress elected by popular vote, a judiciary branch appointed by the National Congress, and a president elected to a four-year term by popular vote. Since 1980, the country has had seven general elections.
Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado, (born October 28, 1968 in Gracias, Lempira) is a Honduran politician and businessman who is the current President of Honduras following his victory in the 2013 Honduran presidential election. The 128 members of the National Congress are also elected for a four-year term. Congressional seats are assigned to a party‘s candidate in proportion to the number of votes received by each party during the election process.
Honduras is divided into 18 departments (states), each with its own cabecera departamental (capital). Municipal authorities are also elected for four years during general elections.
The judicial branch includes a Supreme Court of Justice, courts of appeal, and several courts of original jurisdiction, such as labor and criminal courts. The executive branch consists of 16 Secretariats: Government and Justice, Defense, Finance, Education, Health, Labor, Communications and Public Works, Natural Resources, Sports, Culture and Arts, Tourism, Presidency, Foreign Relations, Commerce and Industry, Agriculture and Live Stock, and Technical and International Cooperation.
Agriculture and forestry are the largest sectors in the economy, providing 60 percent of all jobs and two-thirds of the nation‘s exports. The major products for export are timber, bananas, meat, and coffee. Their production usually involves foreign capital and is highly developed. While campesinos (small farmers) constitute the social majority, their contribution to the gross national product (GNP) is minor because they still rely on traditional agricultural practices, including slash-and-burn cultivation and the use of wooden plows. Coffee and bananas contribute more than 50 percent of the country‘s export revenues. In addition, nontraditional exports such as shrimp and lobster have begun to impact the economy.
Maquiladoras, or factories, that assemble imported items for re-export were introduced in 1990 to take advantage of the country‘s low wages (which range from $2 to $3 per day in the non-export agricultural sector to as much as $4 per day in the export sector). The Honduran maquiladoras have earned a negative reputation in the United States because of adverse publicity about their use of child labor. In most maquiladoras, the workers are young women, often single mothers who support their families with low but sufficient wages. It is estimated that 80 percent of men ages 18 to 25 are unemployed.
In the 1980s, the United States gave aid money to Honduras for the use of its territory in support of the Contras‘ efforts to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Most of the aid money was spent on supporting the Contras rather than on the country‘s vast social needs. Through overspending, the Honduran government eventually amassed a huge fiscal deficit, and because of its debt, international banks cut off financing.
Honduras‘ economic situation remains uncertain. In 1994, a drought resulted in a shortage of electric power. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated numerous rural and urban areas, many of which have yet to be fully reconstructed. While international disaster relief funds helped Honduras during this crisis, they made little impact in the fight against poverty. Most of these funding sources were exhausted in 2002.
Honduras is the second poorest country in Central America, with an unequal distribution of income and, as such, the country suffers from high crime, frequent labor strikes, and high unemployment. Unemployment increased after the approval of a new minimum wage law in late 2008. The law has resulted in some businessmen letting go of some of their employees, claiming they could not pay the new salary. In March 2005, Honduras became the second country to ratify the U.S. Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the hopes that expanding trade will increase job growth.
People and Culture
The majority of the population is a mixture of indigenous, African, and Spanish heritage sometimes referred to as Ladino. There are minorities of Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Arabs and six main indigenous groups: the Miskito, Pech (or Paya), Maya Chortí, Lenca, Jicaque (or Tolupan), and Tawahka. Another group in this diverse mix is the Garifuna. In the 1500s, when Europeans brought African slaves to the Caribbean islands, the slaves on two ships that wrecked near St. Vincent escaped. The Africans adopted the language and culture of their hosts, the Carib Indians, and intermarriage resulted in a group known today as the Garifuna, or black Caribs. In 1700, Britain took over St. Vincent, and in 1797 the Garifuna were exiled to the island of Roatán. They later spread to Belize, Nicaragua, and other parts of Honduras.
Most Hondurans are Roman Catholic, but Protestant congregations do exist in fewer numbers. Although Spanish is the predominant language, some people, especially along the north coast and in the Bay Islands, speak English. Garifuna is spoken in Garifuna communities.
The country has an estimated population of 7.3 million people and enjoys a relatively low population density, especially compared with neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala. On the other hand, its population distribution and growth patterns are not favorable. The area suitable for settlement is limited, so the bulk of the population is concentrated in the city of Tegucigalpa, the Comayagua and San Pedro Sula valleys, and the north coast. The eastern quadrant of the country remains one of the most inaccessible and least inhabited areas of Central America. The rate of annual population growth was estimated at 2.024 percent in 2008. Rapid population growth is placing increasing strains on the government‘s capacity to keep pace in providing health, economic, educational, and other services to the Honduran people.
With a land area of 44,997 square miles (112,492 square kilometers), Honduras is the second largest country in Central America. The climate is characterized by a wet season from June to November and a dry season from December to May. Climatic variations are more pronounced in the coastal lowlands, particularly in the north, where major hurricanes and severe floods and droughts have occurred in recent years. Temperate conditions prevail in the higher elevations.
The country consists of mountains, mangrove and other forests, beaches, and coral reefs. It has more than 500 miles of exceptional coastline. Two-thirds of the terrain is mountainous, with agriculture and small cities tucked away in valleys. The average altitude is 1,000 feet above sea level, with the highest peak, in Celaque National Park, reaching 9,275 feet.
Honduras also possesses an underwater paradise of coral reefs on the Caribbean coast, the longest in the Northern Hemisphere, which is easily accessible from the Bay Islands. About 45 percent of the land is covered with forests. Among the tree species are palm, pine, mahogany, Spanish cedar, balsa, and rosewood. Honduras is home to several distinct ecosystems, including lowland rain forests and highland cloud forests in the interior, tropical rain forests on the Atlantic coast, and dry forests on the Pacific coast.
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HONDURAS AT A GLANCE