Military Coup Shines World Spotlight on Honduras' History, Political System

June 29, 2009 05:30 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
In June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was removed from his post by a military coup, after he attempted to hold an unconstitutional referendum in order to extend his nonrenewable four-year term in the presidency. The military installed Congress Speaker Roberto Micheletti as interim president until new presidential elections can be held on Jan. 27, 2010. The coup has garnered worldwide criticism from nations that are unaccustomed to military solutions to internal political problems.

In order to provide context for understanding this coup, findingDulcinea reviews the history, economic situation and political system of Honduras.


Before the Spanish conquest in 1524, the territory now known as the country of Honduras was inhabited by aborigines, descended mostly from the Mayan culture. Christopher Columbus arrived in the territory on July 30, 1502, during his fourth voyage through the Americas. According to, the name “Honduras,” meaning “depths” in Spanish, refers to the deep waters off of the coast of the mainland, and is said to have stemmed from Columbus’ exclamation after surviving a tropical storm: “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras! [Thank God we've escaped these treacherous depths!].” 

In 1821, after centuries as a Spanish colony, Honduras, along with several other countries in Central America, asserted its independence from Spain. In 1823, the country joined the United Provinces of Central America, which collapsed in 1838 due to social and economic differences between its member nations. As explains, “Since independence, Honduras has been plagued with nearly 300 incidents of unrest, including internal rebellions, civil wars, and changes of government—more than half of which occurred during the 20th century.”

To this day, Honduras has been unable to achieve a state of social, political and economic balance, due mainly to the entrenched socioeconomic differences that have kept the country internally divided. The capital of modern-day Honduras is Tegucigalpa, where the political and economic centers are located.

Politics: Strong military presence often overthrows civilian authority

Since the early 1950s, Honduran politics have been deeply influenced by the military. According to the U.S. Library of Congress’ Country Studies Web site, “From 1963 until 1971, and again from 1972 until 1982, the military essentially controlled the national government.” The military coup of 1963 overthrew the democratically elected Ramón Villeda Morales, leading to a series of subsequent military governments that held almost uninterrupted control over the country, until the election of Suazo Córdova, from the Liberal Party of Honduras, in 1981.

Even though Honduras has five official parties, two of them, the National Party (Partido Nacional de Honduras: PNH) and the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal de Honduras: PLH) have maintained control over the country through the last decades. The reign of the PLH from 1981 to 1989 was known for permitting a United States military presence in the country, and for supporting the Nicaraguan Contras.

Through the 1990s, the military continued to exert its influence in political and economic matters. According to the Library of Congress, the Honduran government is structured in a manner that allows the executive branch to dominate the legislative and judicial branches. Many times, the Honduran justice system has been skewed by the deep socio-economic differences evident in the country’s social structure, favoring civilian and military elites over common citizens. Corruption is present in all ranks of the Honduran political system, where “bribery is an almost institutionalized practice,” Country Studies explains.

Economy and Demographics: A country divided

Like many countries in Central and Latin America, Honduras is characterized by having an extremely unequal division of wealth. The World Bank defines Honduras as a “lower middle-income country,” with an estimated population of 7.5 million and a per-capita income of $1,700. The Lempira, Honduras’ national coin, has recently become stable against the U.S. dollar, exchanging at approximately 19 Lempiras per dollar in June 2009.

As a result of socioeconomic inequalities, poverty is a pressing issue in Honduras. A large portion of the poor population in the country inhabits its rural areas, which were drastically struck by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. According to Reuters, Mitch “killed 13,500 people across Central America and caused $5 billion in damage.” In an ambitious project, the Honduran government launched the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) campaign, which was endorsed by Manuel Zelaya’s cabinet and aims to reduce extreme poverty in the country by half by 2015.

According to the World Bank, Honduras has the most “open” economy in Central America, based on  trading of manufactures and agricultural commodities. In 2005, Honduras signed the CAFTA Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which allowed it to include its main port of Puerto Cortes in the U.S. Container Security Initiative. Unfortunately, the country has been deeply affected by the recession in the U.S., which has reduced “[r]emittances growth, maquila exports and FDI,” key aspects of the economic relationship between Honduras and the U.S. The World Bank predicts that real GDP growth in Honduras will fall to approximately 2 percent during 2009.

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