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

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled December 1995

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
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  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)