Monday, December 05, 2005

Honduras

The North and South American continents have always been pretty close to each other. Back in the day, when all the continents were apart of the giant landmass called Pangaea. North and South America then were more smashed together, Mexico City pretty much touching Columbia. After a very long time of floating around on an eternal sea of magma, the two land masses both drifted west, and slightly apart.
The North American plate continues to the north and west, slamming into the Pacific plate sliding along the San Andreas fault and sliding over the pacific plate somewhere off the coast of Oregon and Washington.
The South American plate drifts west and climbs over the Nazca plate. The subduction zone occurs just off the entire western coast, and results in all the volcanos.
The area in between the two continents consists of two smaller plates, both going in different directions. The Cocos plate extends from southern Mexico until Panama and is traveling east. The Caribbean plate is bordered by the Greater Antilles (Cuba and Hispaniola) on the north, the Lesser Antilles (Barbados, Grenada, etc..) on the east, the coast of Venezuela on the south, and the Pacific coast of Central America on it’s west.
Most of the countries of central America have volcanoes, due to the subduction occurring with the Cocos plate driving down under the Caribbean plate, but there is an area of Central America where the plates just bunch up the landforms. Unlike the north-south range of volcanic mountains running from Mexico down to Panama, and then continuing in the Andes, this area is a mishmash of ranges and ridges running every which way. That area is contained in the country of Honduras.

In this beautiful country, full of mountains and banana fields, is a small town with a boy named Luis, who gets support from an organization known as Feed the Children. We started sponsoring him about 4 years or so ago. It’s the coolest thing to know that such a small part of your income, even when you don’t have much to spare, can be such a shining light in a small child’s life. Especially when the people who give him the things he needs with that money are also sharing the words of God and the good news of Jesus Christ. He wrote us recently and expressed how beautiful his country was, so I thought I would learn a little bit more about it, and drop that knowledge on to you.

Honduras is the original banana republic, in that it is very poor, lacks many of the physical resources that the countries around it have, and yes: has a very large banana industry. Honduras is about 112,000 square km, about the size of Tennessee, and had an upside down triangular shape. The north side of the triangle faces the Caribbean sea, the SW side abuts Guatemala and El Salvador, and the SE side is shared with Nicaragua. At the southern apex of the triangle, Honduras has some coastline on the Pacific, in a gulf, Fonseca, shared with El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Honduras is mostly mountainous, with thin, flat plains near the coasts. The weather, as you might expect, is sub-tropical at sea level ranging to temperate in the highlands. The country was at one time heavily forested, but deforestation has been great, and much of the forests are gone, pushed aside by agriculture.
The area is frequently hit by hurricanes, like Hurricane Mitch in 1998, a category 5 storm which, because of how storms travel in the Caribbean, hung over Honduras for several days, causing massive flooding and killing thousands.

Honduras was a part of the Mayan Empire for a while starting in about 100AD, but the Mayan Empire centered in the Yucatan peninsula, and mostly had influence in the region. They build a city and temple in the area of Copan, near the modern day border with Guatemala. After the Mayan culture collapsed in the 900s, Honduras became an area of several tribes and cultures.
The Spanish came at the dawn of the 1500s. Columbus himself walked along the north coast of Honduras, but the region was largely ignored for many years. There was rumor of gold in the hills, and for a while colonization meant the search for gold. But gold has never been plentiful, and it eventually dried up.
Constant fighting with the Spanish until 1539 and European disease nearly wiped out the native populations in the 40 years after the Spanish first took control of the area. Honduras became a colonial backwater after the mining was depleted. Agriculture was not easily developed, as it lacked the fertile volcanic soils of it’s neighbors. Some tobacco and coffee was exported to Europe, but not nearly as much as the surrounding colonies. Most of the economy consisted of local grazing land. The north coast was also a frequent target of the infamous pirates of the Caribbean.
The colony collapsed in the early 1820s, and the Central American nations quickly declared independence and settled on a plan for a unified federation. Unification is hard, though, when there are local rivalries, suspicions, sectarianism and a strong divide between liberal and conservative trains of thought. By 1838, all the provinces became independent nations.
There’s an interesting tale of one Honduran who rose to become the leader of the Unified Federation and desperately held it together. He is like the George Washington of Central America. His name is Francisco Morazan, but I won’t go into his tale here.
Between independence and about 1875, there was a period of instability in Central America (you think: what, it wasn’t unstable at some point?). Squabbles between the political strains of thought dominated government and economic development was stagnant. To add to that injury, U.S. and European powers, mostly private, which either wanted to take over altogether or drive the area into debt by loaning money of which only a slight amount ever made it to the country. Most of it ending up in hands with sticky fingers, if you get my drift.
Between then and 1891, President Marco Aurelio Soto attempted to change all this by regulating state finances, reforming the legal code, and encouraged U.S. investment in mining. With that taste of success, large banana companies drove out the smaller producers and basically ran the government through bribes and financing private armies. One historian notes:
“North American power had become so encompassing that U.S. military forces and United Fruit could struggle against each other to see who was to control the Honduran Government, then have the argument settled by the U.S. Dept of State.”
Needless to say, government officials right up to the president ran things more like political “bosses” than elected officials. The worst of which was Tibercio Carias Andino of the National Party, who professionalized the military, suppressed his opposition and the media and let the banana companies run free.
All this led the U.S. to put pressure on the country after WWII, causing succeeding presidents to begin reform, modernization and liberalization. 1954 saw the birth of Honduras’ first labor movement, in the form of a banana strike. THE Banana Strike was the first one that the government could not put down with force or bribes, and grew to over 40,000 fruit workers and was widely supported. The government gave minimal concessions, but recognized the union’s right to exist – something that was unthinkable in other Central American countries.
But government officials were, on the whole, still quite corrupt and incompetent. 1956 saw the rise of military power in Honduras when Colonel Lopez Arellano and a group of soldiers threw out the government, and in a move not unlike what happens in Turkey, threw out the leaders, held new elections, and then turned the government over to the civilians again.
This occurred several times, and for the most part the military was in charge until the 1980s.
It was during this time that Honduras had what was called the Soccer War with El Salvador. It wasn’t much of a war really, but it’s quite interesting.
The military still held much control over things after that, but the 80s were mostly marked by the USA’s intervention in Nicaragua, by using Honduras as a base of operations for the Contras that conducted war with the Socialist governments of Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Each president subsequent to the disbanding of the Contras in 1990 has attempted to bring Honduras further and further away from banana republic status. Rafael Leonardo Callejas (N) was elected in 1989 by a large margin. He began a program of privatization, selling off public industries and laying public employees off in an attempt to put Honduras’ books in order. Mostly what it did was drive the unemployment and poverty rates higher, and the industries were sold to cronies and persons in the military. Carlos Roberto Reina (L) was elected in 1993 and promised a “moral revolution” to clean up the corrupt political system, which only slowed it down really. 1997 saw the election of Carlos Flores Facusse (L), who attempted to negotiate with all the governments and institutions that Honduras owed money, in an attempt to finally bring the country out of debt. Any chance of this happening ended with Hurricane Mitch, after which the government was in a constant state of crisis management.
Ricardo Maduro (N) was the victor in the 2001 elections, representing the first time that voters could vote for different government posts (parliament members, president) from different parties, and the national congress for the first time is controlled by a different party than the president.
Also a first, Maduro was elected on a platform of crusading against the growing fear of crime. People didn’t, and still don’t, feel safe in the streets. In fact this issues still dominates the political landscape today, and the current presidential elections, which were held a couple of weeks ago, pivoted on this issue.
The two candidates took different sides to the issue, but while the Liberal and Conservative labels don’t really mean much beyond historical tradition, the main difference on the topic of crime was that one supported the death penalty and the other life in prison for violent crime.

Now it appeared that the Liberal candidate, Manuel Zelaya, who ran as the more Catholic “life in prison” candidate was defeating the National candidate Porfirio Lobo, who was the death penalty candidate. Exit polls had him ahead, but the count was close and there is a recount going on.
Honduras was one of the first Central American countries to sign the Central American Free Trade agreement. Which is no wonder, as they stand to gain quite a bit. The last hold out was Costa Rica, the smoothest economy on the isthmus.

1 comment:

Maria Elia Moya Posas a/k/a/ Maria Elia Moya said...

Hi Richard, thanks for writing about Honduras. Honduras has a lot to offer. Did you know that it has one of the largest coral reefs in the world? Did you know that Honduras also produces great coffee? Thanks for mentioning Francisco Morazan. He tried to keep all the Central American republics together. Once again, thanks for writing about Honduras.