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Columbus, on his fourth and final voyage, landed on the American mainland for the first time near present-day Trujillo, Honduras. The day was 14 August 1502, and he named the place Honduras (‘depths’ in Spanish) for the deep waters off the north coast.

In the 1850s, American William Walker attempted to take over Central America and in fact did gain control of Nicaragua for a time. His campaign ended in defeat and he was captured and executed by firing squad. But where Walker failed, US free enterprise succeeded.

Towards the end of the 19th century, US traders took an interest in bananas produced on the fertile north coast of Honduras. With the advent of refrigeration, the banana industry boomed and Honduras fell into the grip of US banana giants – United Fruit and Standard Fruit. To this day, bananas remain Honduras’ key export and it was not until the 1950s that the country began to diversify its exports significantly to include coffee, cotton, cattle and sugar.

Most Hondurans live a generally isolated existence in the mountainous interior, which may help to explain the country’s rather insular policy in relation to other countries in the region. In Honduras, as in its neighbour states, chronic poverty, inequality, state repression and gang violence are part of everyday life, a situation that is complicated by the occasional violence of tropical weather patterns, such as the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Mitch smashed into settlements along the north coast of Honduras and the offshore Bay Islands, causing untold damage within a nightmarish 48-hour period that claimed a total of 10,000 victims. President Carlos Roberto Flores claimed Hurricane Mitch destroyed 50 years of progress in the country. About 70 per cent of Honduran crops were wiped out, an estimated 70-80 per cent of the country’s transport infrastructure was destroyed and around 25 small villages were levelled by landslides.

Unemployment, poverty and the devastation left behind by Hurricane Mitch have led many Hondurans to head north in search of the American Dream – and increasing numbers are deported back home. Between 2000 and 2004, around 20,000 young men and women of Central American origin, considered criminals by the US authorities, were deported to their home countries, which they barely knew – their parents had fled the civil wars in the 1980s. Of these 20,000, it is believed that up to 7,000 were Honduran. As many deportees are gang members, their arrival back in their home country has drastically increased crime levels.

An estimated 36,000 young Hondurans are involved in gangs or _maras_. Fuelling the problem in marginalized urban areas are high levels of youth unemployment (around 28 per cent), family disintegration and domestic violence, easy access to drugs and small arms, and an overwhelmed and ineffective justice system, including prisons that serve as gang training camps.

Up to 2006 the President was hardliner Ricardo Maduro, who had sought to replicate the tough stance on crime of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and had come under heavy criticism for human rights abuses.

In January 2006 he was replaced by the Liberal Manuel Zelaya, who was swept to power by an electorate eager for change. After almost a year in office, the new leader has shown political will to implement effective change but has been hampered by serious disorganization. Zelaya and his close advisor Patty Rodas, wife of a militant Sandinista leader, recently incurred Washington’s wrath when they announced that Honduras would purchase oil from Venezuelan President – and US bugbear – Hugo Chávez. One thing is certain – whether or not Manuel Zelaya achieves the goals he set out when he came to office, his time in office will be anything but dull.

Fact file

Leader President Manuel Zelaya Rosales (since January 2006).
Economy GNI per capita $1,030 (El Salvador $2,350, United States $41,400). In June 2005, over half of Honduras’ external debt was written off but around 53% of the population lives below the poverty line. In March 2006 Honduras signed a free-trade agreement with the US.
Monetary unit Lempira. Named after the Lenca chief Lempira who led the main resistance to the Spanish invaders in the early 16th century.
Main exports bananas, coffee, shrimp, textiles produced in _maquiladoras_ (export assembly plants).
People 7.4 million. People per square kilometre 66 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 31 per 1,000 live births (El Salvador 24, US 7). Maternal mortality 110 per 100,000 live births. 17% of under-fives are underweight for their age.
Environment Deforestation is an ongoing problem in Honduras, which is rich in hardwoods and old-growth trees. It is estimated that up to 85% of hardwood and 50% of coniferous wood harvested yearly is ‘clandestine’. Tegucigalpa will soon face an environmental crisis due to overpopulation and the building of new neighbourhoods without proper planning.
Culture _Mestizo_ (mixed indigenous and European) 90%, indigenous 7% (Lenca, Chorti, Chorotega and Pipil), black 2%, white 1%.
Religion Christian: Roman Catholic 97%; Protestant 3%.
Language Spanish is the national language, English, Creole, Carib and Mayan dialects are also spoken.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution One of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. In terms of inequality, Honduras is second only to Guatemala in Central America.
Literacy 80%. Net primary enrolment/attendance 87%. Honduras is the third most unequal country in Latin America in terms of access to education.
Life expectancy 69 years (El Salvador 72, US 78).
Freedom Environmental and human rights activists are routinely murdered, tortured and arbitrarily arrested. A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political and family ties own most of the country’s news media.
Position of women Most women work for low pay in the informal sector without legal protection. Violence against women remains rife. However, this year 32 women were elected as members of Congress – the largest number ever.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is legal but same-sex marriage and adoption are banned. Employers routinely ignore anti-discrimination laws and test job applicants for syphilis to detect HIV status.
New Internationalist assessment After almost a year in office, President Zelaya’s reforms have produced mixed results. On sensitive issues such as the environment, education, security, energy resources and foreign policy, Zelaya appears to have made some strong decisions. However, the new administration also appears to dither on many issues and may lack clear objectives. School fees have been abolished and an extra 200 million _lempiras_ ($10.6 million) budgeted for school dinners – honouring two campaign pledges. The armed forces now guard against the indiscriminate felling of trees, deliberate forest fires and the smuggling of precious wood. But water, land and pollution issues have not been tackled and Zelaya’s much-trumpeted transparency policy has yet to materialize.

New Internationalist issue 397 magazine cover This article is from the January/February 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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