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Honduras - History

Honduras History

There is evidence of Maya settlement since at least 1000 BC at Copán in western Honduras, but like other Maya city-states this was abandoned mysteriously around 900 AD. Columbus set foot on the American mainland for the first time at Trujillo in northern Honduras in 1502 and named the country after the deep water off the Caribbean coast ('Honduras' means depths). The Spanish settled in Trujillo in 1525, but soon became interested in colonizing the cooler highlands. They established a capital at Comayagua in central Honduras in 1537, and this remained the political and religious center of the country for 350 years, until Tegucigalpa became the capital in 1880.

The Indians resisted Spanish colonialism, and, by some accounts, almost managed to drive the colonizers from the mainland. The chief of the Lenca tribe, Lempira, led 30,000 Indians against the Spanish, but was treacherously murdered at peace talks in 1538, and by the following year resistance was crushed. Gold and silver were discovered near Tegucigalpa in 1570, attracting British and Dutch pirates to the Trujillo area. Around 1600, the Spanish estimated that Roatán was home to 5000 British buccaneers. Trujillo was sacked in 1643 by Dutch pirates and was not resettled by the Spanish until 1787.

While Spain concentrated its energies on the interior, the British were attracted to the Caribbean coast by stands of mahogany and brought black settlers from Jamaica and other West Indian islands to harvest the timber. Following an appeal by chiefs of the Miskito Indians, a British protectorate was declared over the entire coastal region extending from Honduras into Nicaragua. This lasted until 1859, when the area was relinquished to Honduras.

Independence from Spain was granted in 1821. Honduras briefly became part of independent Mexico, but then joined the Central American Federation. Conflicts between conservatives and liberals led to a break from the union, and Honduras declared independence as a separate nation in 1838. Since then, power has alternated between two political factions and a succession of military regimes. There have been hundreds of coups, rebellions, electoral 'irregularities' and Machiavellian manipulations since independence. The most infamous was the incursion by North American filibuster William Walker in 1860, whose ill-fated attempt to take over Central America ended with defeat in Trujillo.

Where American adventurers failed to gain control of Honduras, US fruit companies succeeded. Around the end of the 19th century, land on Honduras' fertile north coast was purchased by US companies on generous terms, in order to ship bananas to the southern USA. Three US companies (Standard Fruit, Cuyamel Fruit and United Fruit) eventually owned 75% of all Honduran banana groves. Bananas accounted for 66% of all Honduran exports in 1913, making the companies extremely powerful players in Honduran politics. Each company allied themselves with domestic political factions, and the rivalries between the three US fruit companies shaped Honduran politics in the first half of the 20th century.

In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador had a brief war known as the Soccer War, which resulted in El Salvadoran troops invading Honduran territory and bombing Honduran airports. The war, which took place during a World Cup qualifying soccer match between the two countries, was sparked by the alleged mistreatment of El Salvadoran immigrants in Honduras. It lasted only 100 hours but soured relations between the two neighbors for over a decade.

During the 1980s, Honduras was surrounded by the turmoil in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala and became a haven for Somoza's National Guardsmen (known as Contras) when Sandinistas overthrew the Nicaraguan dictator. Strong US influence, aid and military assistance maintained stability in Honduras throughout this period, as the country became the focus of US policy and strategic operations in the region. Huge sums of money and thousands of US troops were funneled into the country as the US conducted provocative operations to destabilize Nicaragua, using Nicaraguan refugee camps in Honduras as bases for their covert war. The US was also training the Salvadoran military at Salvadoran refugee camps inside Honduras. Public outcry, political instability, the exposé of the Iran-Contra scandal and the knowledge that 12,000 Contras were operating from Honduras, resulted in anti-American demonstrations that drew crowds of 60,000 people in Tegucigalpa. The government finally reexamined its role as a US military base, refused to sign a new military agreement with the US and told the Contras to leave Honduras. With the election of Chamorra as president of Nicaragua in 1990, the Contra War ended and the Contras left Honduras.

Since then, Honduras' problems have been largely economic, with falling exports, a growing foreign debt and a shrinking GNP per capita. Aid from the US has shrunk since Honduras is no longer the linchpin of US Central American policy. Trade with Europe is now twice that of trade with the US, but Honduras is still vulnerable to volatile price fluctuations of banana and coffee prices. The center-right Liberal Party is headed by President Carlos Flores Facussé who was elected in November 1997. Flores has strong ties to the US and is co-owner of the newspaper La Tribuna.

In November 1998, international aid and relief workers poured into Central America to help with the recovery from the devastation left by Hurricane Mitch. Honduras was the hardest hit by Mitch's rampage. The three days of rain that followed Mitch caused landslides and floods that buried towns and destroyed over 100 bridges throughout the country. When the Río Choluteca flooded, it devastated Tegucigalpa, the capital, sweeping things downriver and leaving behind an ocean of mud. By 2000, much of Mitch's mess was cleaned up, but the environmental practices that exacerbated the flooding, such as clearcutting, monoculture farming and rapid urban expansion, continue.

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