Before the Spaniards entered the land now called Honduras, the region was inhabited by the war-like Lencas and Jicaques, Mexican Amerindian traders, and Paya hunters and fishermen. The Mayan ceremonial center at Copán in western Honduras flourished about the 8th century AD but was in ruins when Columbus reached the mainland on his fourth voyage in 1502. He named the region Honduras, meaning "depths."
Colonization began in 1524 under Gil González de Ávila. In 1536, Pedro de Alvarado, who came from Guatemala at the bidding of Hernán Cortés in Mexico, founded San Pedro Sula, and another faction founded Comayagua in 1537. After the treacherous murder by the Spaniards of an Amerindian chieftain named Lempira in 1539, his followers were subjugated. In that year, Honduras was made part of the captaincy-general of Guatemala, and for most of the period until 1821, it was divided into two provinces, Comayagua and Tegucigalpa. Some silver was produced in the mines of Tegucigalpa, but the area was otherwise ignored by the Spanish empire.
Honduras joined other provinces of Central America in declaring independence from Spain in 1821. It came under the Mexican empire of Agustín de Iturbide in 1822–23. Honduras was a member of the United Provinces of Central America from 1824 to 1838. During that time, a liberal Honduran, Francisco Morazán, became president and struggled unsuccessfully to hold the federation together. He was exiled in 1840 and assassinated in 1842.
After Honduras declared itself independent on 26 October 1838, conservatives and liberals fought for political control. From 1840 to 1876, conservative leaders held power either as presidents or as army leaders. The second half of the 19th century brought the development, by US companies, of banana growing in northern Honduras. During the administration of liberal president Marco Aurelio Soto (1876–83), there was a "golden age" in Honduran letters and education.
US corporate interests, especially the United Fruit Co. (now United Brands), and military dictators dominated Honduran economic life during the first half of the 20th century. Honduran politics was dominated by the conservative Gen. Tiburcio Carías Andino (1932–48). In 1948, his handpicked successor, Juan Manuel Gálvez, took office. Gálvez proved to be more than a mere puppet, but was conservative nonetheless. When the election of 1954 produced no presidential candidate with a majority vote, he transferred the presidency to the vice president, Julio Lozano Díaz, who governed for almost two years. After an abortive attempt to have himself elected president, Díaz was deposed in 1956 by high army officers, who set up a junta. Democratic elections were held in 1957, and José Ramón Villeda Morales of the Liberal Party was elected president.
In 1963, just before completing the final months of his six-year term, Villeda was turned out of office by a coup. The liberal government was succeeded by a conservative coalition of military, Nationalist Party, and Liberal Party leaders under an air force officer, Col. Oswaldo López Arellano. This government was legalized almost two years later by an elected constituent assembly, which adopted a new constitution and proclaimed López president in June 1965.
During López's second term, a bitter and destructive four-day war broke out in July 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador. Although the immediate cause of the war was animosity arising from a World Cup elimination-round soccer match between the two countries, the underlying causes were a long-standing border dispute and the long-term migration of some 300,000 Salvadorans in search of land, which the Honduran government made it illegal for Salvadoran immigrants to own. Salvadoran troops won the ground war, but Honduran planes controlled the air. Out of this stalemate and with the help of the OAS, a compromise cease-fire was arranged. In June 1970, the two nations accepted a seven-point peace plan, creating a "no-man's-land" demilitarized zone along their common frontier. In the fall of 1973, Honduras and El Salvador began bilateral talks to resolve their differences. Progress was slow, and it was not until October 1980 that Honduras and El Salvador signed a treaty settling the dispute.
In the 1970s, López and the military continued to dominate Honduran politics. A civilian, Ramón Ernesto Cruz Uclés, was elected president in 1971, but lasted only briefly. By 1972, Gen. López was back in power. Gen. López assumed the title of chief of state, and suspended the National Congress and all political party activities. It was later discovered that in 1974 officials in the López administration had accepted a $1.25-million bribe from United Brands in exchange for a 50% reduction in the banana tax. A Honduran investigative commission insisted on examining López's Swiss bank account, and the scandal came to be known as "Bananagate" in the United States. Finally, in April 1974, López was overthrown by a group of lieutenant colonels.
This military group was something of a reformist group, seeking social reforms and the removal of the senior officer corps. Political activity continued to be banned following the coup of 1975. Meanwhile, a significant grassroots movement, the National Front of United Peasants, had come to the fore and was pressuring the successive military governments to enact a program of large-scale land redistribution.
There followed two more military governments led by Col. Juan Alberto Melgar Castro (1975–78) and Gen. Policarpo Paz García (1978–83). This period saw strong economic growth and the building of a modern infrastructure for Honduras. At the same time, there was a gradual movement toward the democratization of the system.
Elections to a constituent assembly took place in April 1980, followed by general elections in November 1981. Under a new constitution in 1982, Roberto Suazo Córdova of the Liberal Party became president. The armed forces retained broad powers, including veto power over cabinet appointments and responsibility for national security. The military continued to grow in response to domestic instability and the fighting in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador. By 1983, several thousand anti-Sandinista guerrillas (popularly known as "contras") in Honduras were working for the overthrow of the Sandinista government, while the Honduran army, backed by the United States, was helping Salvadoran government forces in their fight against leftist guerrillas.
This stability became apparent in November 1985, when Hondurans elected José Simón Azcona Hoyo to the presidency in the first peaceful transfer of power between elected executives in half a century. Azcona was elected with only 27% of the vote, due to a peculiarity of Honduran electoral laws. Azcona attempted to distance himself from the United States in foreign policy and was critical of US contra policy. He signed the Central American peace plan outlined by President Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica; however, he did not move to close down contra bases as promised. The Suazo government worked closely with the United States on matters of domestic and foreign policy. US military presence in Honduras grew rapidly. Several joint military maneuvers took place during 1983–87, and the US CIA used Honduras during that time as a base for covert activities against the Sandinista regime. In exchange, the United States sent large amounts of economic aid to Honduras. Suazo also worked closely with the Honduran military, allowing it to pursue its anticommunist agenda freely. This arrangement led to an unprecedented political stabilization in Honduras.
In 1989, Rafael Leonardo Callejas of the National (conservative) Party was elected. With the Nicaraguan issue fading after the Sandinistas' electoral loss, Callejas focused on domestic issues, applying a dose of both conservative economics and IMF austerity measures to the Honduran economy. Callejas moved to reduce the deficit and allow for a set of market adjustments, which in the short term produced a good deal of dislocation but led to higher rates of growth thereafter. Most significantly, Callejas maintained good relations with the military. In an unprecedented show of restraint, the military sat on the sidelines as voters went to the polls in November 1993.
The voters themselves showed a good deal of resentment toward the Callejas reforms. The Liberal Party returned to power in the person of Carlos Roberto Reina. While it was unlikely that its economic problems would be solved quickly, Honduras nevertheless had achieved a level of political stability that few could have anticipated in decades past. Reina, known for his support of human rights and clean government, called for a "moral revolution" to combat crime, poverty, and widespread corruption in both the public and private sectors. In late 1994, corruption charges were filed against former president Callejas and other top government officials. Reina also took steps to further reduce the influence of Honduras's powerful military, most notably the abolition of the draft, including the notorious press-gang conscription by which young men were seized off the streets and forced into military service. The liberal administration also dismantled the military-controlled Public Security Forces (FUSEP), replacing them with a new civilian force.
Reina proved less successful in dealing with the economic problems of his nation, long considered the poorest in Central America. An already difficult situation was exacerbated by the 1994 drought that slashed production of hydroelectric power, creating an energy crisis that drove up food and fuel prices and caused chronic power outages. The struggle to improve economic conditions continued through 1996, with the government caught between an international financial community demanding tough structural reforms and a beleaguered population unwilling to tolerate the sacrifices entailed by such programs. In November of 1997, Carlos Roberto Flores of the Liberal Party won the presidential elections with 52.8%. His party also won 62 out of 128 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. But the fury of Hurricane Mitch destroyed Honduras's economy and placed an even heavier burden on President Flores' challenges. The subsequent economic crisis of 1999 further worsened the economic situation.
Discontent with the government helped opposition candidate Ricardo Maduro win the 2001 presidential election with 52.2% of the vote. His National Party also came ahead in the legislative election with 46% of the vote, but it only gained 61 seats in the 128-seat assembly, forcing Madero to seek the support of the smaller centrist parties to pass his legislative initiatives. The economy has continued to perform poorly, with less than 2% growth in 2002. More than 50% of Hondurans live in poverty.