New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 273

Country profile: Honduras.

Where is Honduras? In the Honduran town of La Ceiba, sweltering on the Caribbean coast, the US Standard Fruit Company has built a theme park. Ancient wooden banana wagons, like something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, are tastefully arranged among the sprinklers on manicured lawns. A tooting Standard Fruit steam locomotive gives free rides through the town to excited hordes of Honduran schoolchildren.

Standard Fruit, along with the other US banana giant, United Fruit, dominated Honduras for much of this century, turning the country into the original ‘banana republic’. Bananas still make up a third of all exports. The banana industry took precedence over national development, producing a country with little social or economic cohesion – there was no paved road joining the country’s two main cities until the 1950s. The banana companies also fed the system of political corruption which has become a hallmark of Honduran public life. In the 1920s one banana baron boasted that ‘in Honduras, a mule costs more than a deputy’.

Bananas made fortunes for the US companies, but did little for most Hondurans. The country has always been the poorest in Central America (at least until Nicaragua’s spectacular economic collapse in the mid-1980s). Three-quarters of the population struggle through life below the poverty line and Honduras exhibits acute forms of many of Latin America’s traditional ills: highly unequal ownership of land provokes regular conflicts between peasants and large landowners in the countryside, while landless peasants flow into the cities to swell the expanding shanty towns. One new twist has been added to such problems – Honduras has become the AIDS capital of Latin America, with 100,000 people estimated to be HIV-positive.

In the 1980s, Honduras found itself caught up in Cold War politics, as Ronald Reagan chose it as a launching pad for his attempts to destabilize the Sandinista government in neighbouring Nicaragua. For much of the decade, 40,000 so-called ‘Contras’ and their families were based inside Honduras, funded and trained by the US. They launched raids over the border into Nicaragua, helping to precipitate an economic collapse which eventually led to the Sandinista electoral defeat in 1990.

Within Honduras the Contra war strengthened the political influence of the military, who developed a taste for the kind of human-rights violations practised by their more bloodthirsty colleagues in Guatemala and El Salvador. Two hundred activists ‘disappeared’ during the decade and hundreds more were assassinated. The US fixation with Nicaragua at least allowed Honduras to fend off the attentions of the IMF for much of the 1980s. In return for allowing the Contra rebels to operate from its territory, Washington rewarded the Honduran Government with large slices of aid.

From 1986 onwards, however, the Contra war began to tail off and US aid fell away, forcing Honduras to turn to the IMF and World Bank, who made their loans conditional on the Government introducing market reforms. These have attracted an influx of foreign investment in the form of numerous maquiladora assembly plants, as companies have moved in to take advantage of Honduras’ low wages (48 cents an hour in 1991). This time, however, the investors are not from the US – they are from Taiwan and South Korea.

Duncan Green

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President Carlos Roberto Reina (took office in 1994).

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $580 (US $23,240)
Monetary unit: Lempira
Main exports: Bananas, coffee, shrimp, maquiladora products
Main imports: Manufactured goods, fuel
External debt: $3.9 billion (1994)
Despite attempts to diversify, bananas and coffee are still the largest exports. Food production has fallen in recent decades as Honduras has become more dependent on food imports from the US.

PEOPLE: 5.7 million. Population growth rate of 2.8% per annum.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 61 per 1,000 live births (Canada 7 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Population is largely Spanish-speaking mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish). Of the remainder, most are pure indigenous, with a small Afro-Caribbean community distributed along the North Coast.
Religion: Largely Roman Catholic, though 15% of Hondurans are now believed to have converted to the new evangelical Protestant sects.
Languages: Spanish, Mayan Indian languages; Black population speaks English, English-Creole or Garifuna.

Sources: World Bank; UNDP; Economist Intelligence Unit; Latin America Monitor; Save the Children Fund.

Previously profiled August 1981


STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
Richest fifth earn 24 times more than poorest fifth.
1981 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
27% of adults judged illiterate. Number is falling, but progress undermined by high drop-out rate among schoolchildren.
1981 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Increasingly dependent on imported food and fuel. Over half of its trade is with US.
1981 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Although human-rights violations are not as bad as in other Central American republics, the military still largely enjoys impunity, while the media routinely practises self-censorship.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Machismo largely unchallenged, despite long-standing women’s movement.
1981 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
65 years. Compares with a rich-world average of 76.
1981 [image, unknown]


POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Honduras has endemic corruption in government and a two-party system built around personalities rather than any great policy differences. The Honduran military and the US Embassy are both highly influential (and unaccountable). Popular movements that might provide a check on official abuses and foster democratic health are fragmented.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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