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Honduras - SOCIETY

Honduras - The Society

HONDURAN SOCIETY is, for the most part, rural and poor. The overall standard of living in the country is one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Foreign as well as domestic assessments of the country have focused on its poverty to the point where this assessment dominates the outlook of the Honduran people.

Almost all social indices show Honduras lagging in development. The annual per capita income is low, health services are extremely deficient, infant mortality and child mortality rates are high, and literacy rates and other educational indicators are low. In 1993 the majority of the population in Honduras remained poor, and a high rate of population increase made alleviation of that poverty in the near future unlikely.

Honduras's relatively low population density would seem to be a positive factor. An abundance of land, however, has not ensured the availability of land for cultivation. The terrain consists for the most part of mountains with only narrow coastal plains. Much of the arable land is used for export crops and is not available to small farmers. Banana (and some pineapple) agribusinesses predominate in the country's most fertile land in the Caribbean coastal plains. Land available for agriculture has actually decreased since the 1950s, as farmland has been converted to rangeland to support an expanding cattle export industry.

The continued underdevelopment of the country produced a crisis of confidence in Honduran society in the 1980s. Indeed, during that decade, economic and social pressures produced an acute sense of disorientation in Honduran society. The combination of a worldwide economic crisis, a sharp rise in crime, and the absence of an independent police force and judicial system left the average citizen with a pronounced sense of vulnerability.

Despite the depressing statistics, however, Honduran society has numerous strengths. Among some of the positive factors are a relatively high number of grassroots organizations, a peasant movement that has continued even during periods of repression, and a corporatist political system in which organizations and classes instead of political parties make their political demands. Positive, too, is the absence of civil war and the high level of terrorism experienced by neighboring countries.

The question for Honduras in the future is how, given the country's limited resources, to deal with severe poverty and to avoid the repression and violence that poverty often engenders.

Honduras - Population

In 1993 Honduras still had a low population density despite explosive population growth during the second half of the twentieth century and significant immigration from neighboring countries. The population was also slightly more than 50 percent rural and unevenly distributed in the mountainous areas around the capital and near the Salvadoran border, and in the Río Ulúa valley. Rapid internal migration, however, was expected to change Honduras from a rural highlands nation in the twentieth century to an urban one with large segments living in coastal lowlands in the twenty-first century.

<>Population Density
<>Rural-to-Urban Migration
<>Regional Emigration
<>Population Growth

Updated population figures for Honduras.

Honduras - Population Density

Although Honduras, with forty-six inhabitants per square kilometer, has a relatively low population density, especially when compared to its neighbors to the west, uneven distribution has contributed to overpopulation in certain areas. The five mountainous departments bordering El Salvador (Ocotepeque, Lempira, Intibucá, La Paz, and Valle) have a much higher population density than the four sparsely populated departments in the east (Colón, Olancho, Gracias a Dios, and El Paraíso). The country's second-largest and least-populated department, Gracias a Dios, had a population density of only 2.5 inhabitants per square kilometer in 1989. Honduras's only densely populated lowland area is the Río Ulúa valley. In 1989 the department of Cortés, on the west bank of the Río Ulúa, had a population density of 188 inhabitants per square kilometer.

Honduras is the only country in Central America with an urban population distributed between two large centers. Whereas other Central American capitals are home to more than 50 percent of their countries' urban populations, Tegucigalpa's percentage of total urban population is considerably lower. The difference is accounted for by the growth of San Pedro Sula. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula are projected to account for nearly 73 percent of the population living in urban areas. The two cities are also projected to account for 25 percent of the total population of Honduras by the end of the twentieth century.


Honduras - Rural-to-Urban Migration

The vast majority of the rural-to-urban population shift has been the result of migration from the southwestern departments (Ocotepeque, Lempira, Intibucá, La Paz, and Valle) to cities in the departments on or near the Caribbean coast (Cortés, Yoro, Atlántida, and Colón) and to Tegucigalpa (in Francisco Morazán department in the central highlands). During the earlier part of the twentieth century, employment opportunities in the newly established banana plantations attracted many people from southern and western Honduras to the Caribbean coast. Cities on the banks of the Río Ulúa, especially El Progreso, experienced impressive growth as a result of this migration from the south. Migration from the mountainous southwest sparked tremendous development in the city of San Pedro Sula. The search for employment also led many to Tegucigalpa, even though the capital has never been a center for industry or agriculture.

Demographers have predicted that, unless significant social and economic reforms are instituted, the rural-to-urban migration trend so prevalent in the twentieth century not only will continue but also will probably increase. Although Honduras is still primarily an agrarian society, urban centers have grown considerably since the 1920s. Analysts speculate that urban centers will continue to expand as a result of internal migration and national population growth.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Tegucigalpa in particular experienced sharp increases in its population. During the 1950s, Tegucigalpa's population increased nearly 75 percent. The following decade brought a population rate increase of more than 80 percent. In 1980 Tegucigalpa had a population of 400,000. By 1989 the population had soared to 576,661. This increase in population has practically crippled the already fragile infrastructure of the city. Housing is woefully inadequate, and a large percentage of the residents either lack running water altogether or receive inadequate amounts.

During the period between 1950 and 1980, San Pedro Sula had a population growth rate that exceeded that of Tegucigalpa. In the 1980s, the annual growth rate dropped somewhat and was less than that of Tegucigalpa (3.7 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively). In 1988 the population of San Pedro Sula stood at 287,350. Whereas San Pedro Sula has dealt more successfully with its population growth, it is nonetheless challenged to meet the housing, services, and employment needs of new inhabitants.

Other urban centers experiencing a high population growth rate are La Ceiba, on the Caribbean, and El Progreso, in the agricultural valley of the Río Ulúa. La Ceiba is the third-largest city in Honduras. In 1988 it had a population of 68,764 and an annual population growth rate of 3.2 percent. El Progreso is the country's fourth-largest city. The 1988 population of this city was 60,058 and the annual growth rate 4.5 percent. The populations of both La Ceiba and El Progreso are expected to exceed 100,000 by the year 2000.

The majority of migrants in Honduras are very young, ranging from their teens to their early twenties. Most male migrants gravitate toward developing agricultural areas, especially the Caribbean coast. Because women traditionally have a more limited choice of employment, their occupational skills are similarly limited. Among the many incentives for their migration are escape from economic hardship, as well as escape from marriage and childbearing at a very young age. The majority of women migrants seek domestic employment or work as street vendors in urban areas. In the early 1990s, an increasing number of women have been seeking employment in the maquiladoras, or assembly factories. Many others become prostitutes. Male urban migrants seek jobs in artisan shops, with merchants, and as laborers. Employment opportunities for the new migrants remain spotty, however, as the industrial and commercial sectors in Honduras have not created enough jobs to absorb the population coming from the rural areas.


Honduras - Regional Emigration

Since the early twentieth century, Honduras has had the challenge of absorbing thousands of immigrants from neighboring countries. Political tensions throughout Central America have been a key factor behind much of the immigration. The number of immigrants from El Salvador looking for land or jobs was especially high between the early twentieth century and the onset of the 1969 Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras. A significant number of Salvadoran immigrants worked in the banana plantations during the 1930s and 1940s.

Armed conflict in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador in the 1980s resulted in the arrival of more than 60,000 refugees. Most of these refugees live near their respective borders, and the majority are women and children. Throughout the 1980s, Nicaraguan refugees continued to arrive in Honduras as the war between Nicaragua's Sandinista government and the Nicaraguan Resistance forces (known as the Contras, short for contrarevolucionarios-- counterrevolutionaries in Spanish) intensified. By the early 1990s, Honduras hosted an estimated 250,000 refugees or immigrants from Central America.


Honduras - Population Growth

In the second half of the twentieth century, Honduras underwent explosive population growth. In the 1910 census, the annual rate of population growth barely exceeded 1.5 percent. By 1950 it had reached 3 percent. From 1960 to 1990, the population growth rate climbed to 3.3 percent. By 1992 the annual population growth had slowed somewhat, but only to an estimated 2.8 percent.

The country's high birth rate has led Honduras's population to double about every twenty-five years. The 1950 census counted 1,368,605 inhabitants, almost twice as many as the 1926 census recorded. By 1974 the population had almost doubled once again. As of July 1992, the population was estimated to be 5,092,776.

Several factors have contributed to the rapid population rise. Honduras has consistently maintained high birth rates during the twentieth century. The crude birth rate (CBR--the annual number of births per 1,000 inhabitants) from the beginning to the midpoint of the century fluctuated between 41.7 and 44.5 births per 1,000 inhabitants. From around 1950 to 1975, Honduras had the highest CBR in Latin America. Since the mid-1970s, the CBR has dropped and steadied somewhat. In 1990 the CBR stood at 39 births per 1,000 inhabitants.

The total fertility rate (TFR-the average number of children a woman would bear in her lifetime) had dropped to 7.5 children per woman by the early 1970s. Since the 1970s, the TFR in Honduras has declined. In 1990 it was 5.2, and the projected TFR for the year 2000 is 4.1.

In 1993, however, the TFR varied considerably according to a woman's residence in rural or urban areas and according to income levels. Rural women had an average of 8.7 children while urban women had 5.3 children. The TFR for all upper and middle income women (rural and urban) was 5.8, while among lower income women it was approximately 8.0.

Regional differences in birth rates, coupled with internal migration, are expected to change Honduras's population distribution. The department of Cortés, with a high population growth rate, and the departments of Colón and Gracias a Dios, heretofore thinly populated areas in the northeast, are expected to become the country's fastest growing areas. The emerging population pattern is one of significant growth in the central highlands near Tegucigalpa and along the entire Caribbean coast region from San Pedro Sula east to Gracias a Dios. The departments bordering El Salvador, in the southwest region of the country, are expected to have the slowest population growth rate.

The absorption of this expanding population represents a serious challenge to the Honduran government. Already inadequate health services, as well as poor educational, employment, and housing opportunities, will be increasingly burdened by a rapidly growing and young population. In 1989 slightly more than 2 million Hondurans, or 45 percent, were between one and fourteen years old. Frustrated expectations for a better standard of living among this youthful population raise the possibility of unrest in the future.



Honduran society, for the most part, mirrors other Latin American countries in terms of its social classes and sectors. Distribution of wealth is uneven, with a small minority of the population (increasingly made up of members of the military) controlling national politics and wealth. Capital is largely obtained through ownership of large landed estates, collaboration with foreign entrepreneurial enterprises, and privileges granted to the military.

In sharp contrast to the small wealthy class, the vast majority of the population is made up of subsistence farmers and agricultural laborers who live in increasing poverty. Since the 1950s, a small middle class has emerged from the ranks of the poor and the artisan sectors. This new middle class had become moderately well off by the 1990s. However, the middle class and especially the poor were extremely hard hit during the economic crisis of the 1980s. Both classes saw many of the modest economic gains they had made in the previous three decades wiped out.

<>Advocates for Social Change
<>The Upper Class
<>The Middle Class
<>The Lower Class

Honduras - SOCIAL SECTORS - Background

Although the class structure in Honduras is similar to that in other Latin American countries, the manner in which these classes interact presents less conflict than is exhibited by Honduras's immediate neighbors. The relative lack of tension in class relations raises the possibility that Honduras might avoid the social and political violence that has plagued Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Political dynamics peculiar to Honduras tend to lessen social pressures, although it is still possible that class tensions, growing poverty among the majority of the population, and increased concentration of wealth in a minority could result in violence in the future.

The low level of social tension in Honduras has its origins in the country's colonial and early republican history. During the colonial period, the province that later became Honduras was a backwater in the territories held by Spain. Because much of the indigenous population either had been exterminated or had died of disease, the province was sparsely populated. Ethnically, this meant that Honduras had a more homogeneous mestizo culture than most other Spanish colonies. The area was isolated because the majority of Honduras's population settled in the central and western highlands, far from the main transportation route that linked the southern and northern regions of the Spanish Empire. Furthermore, the area lacked any significant mineral deposits or other easily exploitable wealth. Consequently, the colonial elite in Honduras came to be defined by their control of the province's political system rather than by their accumulation of wealth. In later centuries, the absence of coffee exporting concerns in Honduras became another factor differentiating it from its neighbors. In most of Central America, large coffee plantations resulted in a wealthy elite. The accumulation of large fortunes by a land-owning minority took place much later in Honduras--during the twentieth century, when much of the wealth from the new banana businesses went to foreign investors who owned the banana companies.

Honduras - Advocates for Social Change

During the twentieth century, the corporatist system of politics that has emerged has eased the intensity of the demands placed on the state by the rural and urban poor. The relative openness of Honduran politics and the degree of legitimacy given to working class demands have resulted in a system in which the organizations representing lower sectors of society can be highly organized and even militant without calling for the overthrow of the system itself. This militancy has made organized labor a political force since the 1950s and has resulted in many labor reforms. Peasant militancy, for example, has made possible the agrarian reform movement. According to some analysts, Honduras has achieved a level of political organization on the part of labor unions and peasant organizations that remains unparalleled in most of Central America. Reform has been uneven, however, and political and social reform movements stagnated in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1990s, the central problems of poverty and underdevelopment remained pervasive.

The military's participation in Honduran politics has been, in one sense, the action of another interest group. The military in Honduras has not emerged as an organization for the sons of the elite, as has been the case in most of Latin America, but rather as an organization that cuts across economic and class lines. This fact has meant a greater divergence of purpose and interests between the traditional Honduran elite and the armed forces. The decision-making structure within the military also allows for a degree of dissent within the organization, resulting in less resistance to social reforms.

The relatively open political discourse found in Honduras is aided by the ability of other social institutions to take advantage of the country's freedom of expression. Although in general the Honduran press tends toward conservative positions, it is free of direct government control. Control of the press is exercised more through cooptation than by censorship. Several independent radio stations are powerful forces in Honduras, a country that has a high illiteracy rate. The independent position of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras--UNAH), which as a rule holds liberal positions, also contributes to the variety of opinions that can be heard.

The Honduran Roman Catholic Church also has been a force pressing for social change and reform, although its role has varied and, in many instances, has been contradictory throughout the years. The role of the church as advocate for change gained ground in the late 1960s after Vatican Council II. The church's role gathered momentum after the meeting of the Latin American Conference of Bishops in Medellín, Colombia in 1968. The Roman Catholic Church in Honduras came to hold the view that its members should become active agents of social change. In Honduras, foreign clergy in particular played a major role in social activism. By the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church in Honduras had come to be perceived as radical, and in 1971 various Roman Catholic Church organizations joined with those of the Christian Democratic Movement of Honduras (Movimiento Demócrata Cristiano de Honduras-- MDCH) to form the Coordinating Council for Development (Consejo Coordinador de Desarrollo--Concorde). The impact of this activism was felt down to the parish level.

Differences of opinion emerged within the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1970s, however, regarding its approach to social change. Certain orders of clergy, particularly the Jesuits (Society of Jesus) and various priests, advocated even greater activism than the church hierarchy supported. The hierarchy's opposition to further change was evident when it withdrew Roman Catholic organizations from the Concorde. As Central America took central stage in the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s because of events in Nicaragua and El Salvador, activist priests were accused of being communists. Tensions between the church's hierarchy and activist priests eased in the 1990s, however, with the decline of insurgency in the area.

Increased political conservatism and repression during the 1980s resulted in the emergence of a great number of grass-roots organizations. Along with labor unions and peasant organizations, the emerging groups advocated vigilance concerning human rights and exerted pressure on the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of disappeared citizens.

These new grass-roots groups, as well as the press, the UNAH, and the Roman Catholic Church, all contributed to the preservation of a political system with relative freedom of expression. The attempts at reform initiated by these groups, however, have not met with complete success. Although the government and military have at times opted for compromise in the face of reform demands, the organizations have also had to endure periods of threatened and real repression.

Honduras - The Upper Class

Although the upper class has enjoyed privileges and wealth far greater than the general population, the Honduran elite has been both economically and politically the weakest oligarchy in Central America. This relative lack of power is partly the result of the dominant role of foreign investment in Honduras since the early twentieth century. Until about 1900, the Honduran elite was involved in rural landholding in the interior highlands and valleys. To this day, some hacendados (large hacienda owners) continue to live on their rural estates. Until the arrival of the banana companies, Hondurans had avoided the underpopulated, inhospitable Caribbean lowlands infamous for their heat and pestilence. Even after banana plantations were established in the Caribbean lowlands at the turn of the century, the interior highlands elite largely maintained its status quo.

With the development of cotton and livestock export businesses following World War II, the traditional Honduran elite became more economically active. In response to the beef markets that opened after the war, commercial production of cattle also became quite profitable. Between 1950 and 1980, cattle production more than tripled in Honduras. This period witnessed a marked acceleration in the concentration of land holdings and wealth. These changes took place mostly at the expense of lands formerly used for food production. As land title disputes and seizures proliferated, social tensions in rural Honduras increased drastically.

With wealth its only defining criterion, the upper class in Honduras is not particularly cohesive and has often split into divergent groups over political and economic issues. Competing business associations have served as vehicles for the disputing factions. Certain factions of the elite are more conservative, whereas others advocate a more liberal and open path to economic development. As a result of their differences, members of the upper class are willing to participate in an open dialogue and form alliances with other sectors and classes. In the 1950s, business interests supported striking workers in foreign-owned corporations. At times, factions of the elite have supported social change while their conservative counterparts have fiercely opposed it. In the 1970s, the military, labor, and peasant organizations joined forces with the more progressive faction of the elite to support a military regime with a reform platform. Probably because all sectors keep a stake in the system, Honduras has avoided fundamental challenges to its social structure and overthrow of its political system.

The twentieth century has seen the military become a part of Honduras's elite. In the mid-1950s, the armed forces in Honduras underwent a transformation. With aid and training primarily from the United States, the military went from being what was, in effect, an array of provincial militias to a modern national institution. Because the military in Honduras had never been an institution favored by the traditional elite, the military has emerged as an independent member of the upper sector of society.

Honduras - The Middle Class

In 1993 the middle class in Honduras is still a small, albeit growing, sector. Inclusion in this sector is best defined by economic factors and by occupation. Except for merchants, an equally important factor in classifying a person as middle class appears to be completion of a higher education. Included among middle class ranks are professionals, students, farmers, merchants, business employees, and civil servants. Although a well-paying occupation is crucial for movement up to the middle sector, incomes for this group are still relatively low.

One factor limiting the size of the middle class is the slow growth of industry and commerce in Honduras. Employment opportunities are scarce. The growth of the middle class in the Caribbean coast region has been directly tied to that area's industries and foreign enterprises. The success of merchants in the north has resulted from the markets created by workers employed in the area's agribusinesses. The middle class in Honduras has not been politically active as a unified group, although many in its ranks are politically active through unions, church groups, or other organizations.

Honduras - The Lower Class

Traditionally, the poor in Honduras have lived predominantly in rural areas. The lack of economic opportunity in rural areas and the subsequent migration to the cities have led to an increasing number of urban poor.

During the colonial period, the low population density in the country made land readily available for small subsistence farmers. When the concentration of land for cotton and cattle export began in the 1950s, the situation in the rural areas changed. By the 1960s, poor rural families were struggling for survival on smaller parcels of land that had ever-decreasing rates of fertility and productivity. By 1965 landlessness had become a problem.

The increase in the number of landless peasants led to even greater numbers migrating to cities in search of employment and in the emergence of a peasant movement in national politics. The majority of those unable to practice subsistence farming remained in rural areas, however, and sought work as farm workers; 62 percent of the labor force in 1993 was in agriculture. Other displaced peasants migrated to the cities in search of employment in the service sector (20 percent of the total labor force in 1993), manufacturing (9 percent of the total labor force), and construction (3 percent of the total labor force). Still others joined the peasant movement and migrated to areas where cooperative enterprises were being established or to areas where members of militant peasant groups were appropriating land.

The poorest peasants still practice subsistence farming in plots of five hectares or less. Many others work as sharecroppers or rent land for cash. The majority of peasants are forced to seek work as full-time or part-time laborers, depending on the season and the size of the farms on which they are employed. At best, this work provides income to supplement the meager earnings from their own small parcels of land. At worst, this work represents their sole source of income.

Although official unemployment figures are not very high, underemployment is widespread in the countryside and is increasingly a problem in urban centers as well. Underemployment (ranging between 15 and 75 percent) is usually a result of the seasonal nature of most of the available agricultural work. During the 1980s, the level of underemployment also rose in areas of the Caribbean coast where banana and sugarcane plantations are located. Although work in sugarcane fields is seasonal, banana plantations are a source of long-term contracts or even permanent employment. The labor surplus in the interior highlands is evidence of the severe economic plight of most Hondurans.

In the 1980s, land pressures, an increasing number of landless peasants, and the declining standard of living of the peasantry and working class galvanized the ranks of peasant organizations and labor unions. The first national peasant group to organize, in the 1950s, was the National Federation of Honduran Peasants (Federación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras--Fenach). The National Association of Honduran Peasants (Asociación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras--Anach) was established in 1962 as a competing association. By the time of the economic crisis of the 1980s, both associations had become equally militant and confrontational. The National Union of Peasants (Unión Nacional de Campesinos--UNC) was formed in the 1960s. It began as a militant organization with roots in the international Christian socialist movement, but by 1993 it was a less combative association. Many other politically active peasant organizations operated in Honduras. Their roles and strategies have varied from alienating the government and military with land takeovers and other militant tactics to a joint agricultural project with the military in 1989.

Since the 1954 banana workers' strike, the labor movement in Honduras has been the strongest in Central America; in 1992, 40 percent of urban labor and 20 percent of rural labor were unionized. Unions are strongest in the public sector, the agricultural sector, and the manufacturing sector. Strategies used by the labor movement range from providing crucial support to sympathetic administrations to adopting more combative positions during general strikes.

Although the labor and peasant movements represent interest groups that cannot be politically ignored, their influence has varied considerably since the 1950s. The two movements were weakened somewhat by repeated government attempts to divide the organizations. They were also weakened by internal divisions and the presence of opportunistic individuals in leadership positions. The economic crisis of the 1980s and the imposition of the economic adjustment policies during that decade have also taken a toll on these organizations. Confrontations between these groups and the government were frequent in the early 1990s. On more than one occasion, strikes in key sectors of the economy led to the government's calling in the army.

Honduras - FAMILY

The family is the fundamental social unit in Honduras, providing a bulwark in the midst of political upheavals and economic reversals. People emphasize the trust, the assistance, and the solidarity that kin owe to one another. Family loyalty is an ingrained and unquestioned virtue; from early childhood, individuals learn that relatives are to be trusted and relied on, whereas those outside the family are, implicitly at least, suspect. In all areas of life and at every level of society, a person looks to family and kin for both social identity and assistance.

In general, the extent to which families interact, and the people with whom they interact, depends on their degree of prosperity. Families with relatively equal resources share and cooperate. Where there is marked disparity in the wealth of various branches of a family, the more prosperous branches try to limit the demands made by the poorer ones. On the one hand, generosity is held in high esteem, and failure to care for kin in need is disparaged; but, on the other hand, families prefer to help their immediate relatives and to bestow favors on those who are able to reciprocate. A needy relative might receive the loan of a piece of land, some wage labor, or occasional gifts of food. Another type of assistance is a form of adoption by which poorer families give a child to more affluent relatives to raise. The adopting family is expected to care for the child and to see that he or she receives a proper upbringing. The children, however, are frequently little better than unpaid domestic help. Implicit in the arrangement is the understanding that the child's biological family, too, will receive assistance from the adopting family.

Kinship serves as metaphor for relations of trust in general. Where a kin tie is lacking, or where individuals wish to reinforce one, a relationship of compadrazgo is often established. Those so linked are compadres (co-parents or godparents). In common with much of Latin America, strong emotional bonds link compadres. Compadres use the formal usted instead of in addressing one another, even if they are kin. Sexual relations between compadres are regarded as incestuous. Compadres are commonly chosen at baptism and marriage, but the relationship extends to the two sets of parents. The tie between the two sets of parents is expected to be strong and enduring. Any breach of trust merits the strongest community censure.

There are three accepted forms of marriage: civil, religious, and free unions. Both serial monogamy and polygamous unions are socially accepted. Annulment is difficult to obtain through the Roman Catholic Church; this fact, in addition to the expense involved, makes couples reluctant to undertake a religious marriage. Civil marriage is relatively common. Divorce in this case is relatively easy and uncomplicated. Marriage forms also reflect the individual's life cycle. Most opt for free unions when they are younger and then settle into more formal marriages as they grow older and enjoy more economic security. Class also plays a role: religious marriage is favored by middle-class and upper-class groups; thus, it signifies higher socioeconomic status. The ideal marriage for most Hondurans involves a formal engagement and religious wedding, followed by an elaborate fiesta.

No shame accrues to the man who fathers many children and maintains several women as mistresses. Public disapproval follows only if the man fails to assume the role of "head of the family" and to support his children. When a free union dissolves, a woman typically receives only the house that she and her mate inhabited. The children receive support only if they have been legally recognized by their father.

Families are usually more stable in the countryside. Since the partners are usually residing in the midst of their kin, a man cannot desert his wife without disrupting his work relationship with her family. A woman enjoys greater leverage when she can rely on her family to assist if a union fails or when she owns her own land and thus has a measure of financial independence.

In keeping with the tradition of machismo, males usually play a dominant role within the family, and they receive the deference due to the head of the household. There is wide variation in practice, however. Where a man is absent, has limited economic assets, or is simply unassertive, a woman assumes the role of head of the family.

Sex role differentiation begins early: young boys are allowed to run about unclothed, while girls are much more carefully groomed and dressed. Bands of boys play unwatched; girls are carefully chaperoned. Girls are expected to be quiet and helpful; boys enjoy much greater freedom, and they are given considerable latitude in their behavior. Boys and men are expected to have premarital and extramarital sexual adventures. Men expect, however, that their brides be virgins. Parents go to considerable lengths to shelter their daughters in order to protect their chances of making a favorable marriage.

Parent-child relationships are markedly different depending on the sex of the parent. Mothers openly display affection for their children; the mother-child tie is virtually inviolate. Father-child relationships vary more depending on the family. Ideally, the father is an authority figure to be obeyed and respected; however, fathers are typically more removed from daily family affairs than mothers.


Rural Life

Because Honduras has traditionally been an agrarian country and, in spite of rapid rates of urban growth, is still one of the least urbanized countries of Central America, conditions of life in the countryside are a major concern. Rural residents are farmers, although about 60 percent of Honduran land remains forested and only 25 percent of the total is available for agriculture or pastureland. A vast majority of rural dwellers are small farmers who till their own plots or landless laborers who work for wages on estates or smaller farms. Many peasants with plots of their own also seek part-time wage labor to supplement their incomes. In a typical case, a man may work his father's land, rent additional land of his own, and do occasional day labor.

The trend toward small farms in marginal areas increased rapidly after 1960 as the population increased explosively. Because land inheritance among the peasantry is divided among all the sons, a farmer with six manzanas (one manzana equals approximately 0.7 hectare) of land and six sons would have only one manzana of land for each child to work as his own as an adult. In addition, escalating land prices have increasingly forced small farmers to migrate to more and more marginal land because of population pressure and the rapid development of commercial agriculture and livestock estates since World War II. The steepness of the marginal mountain slopes, however, often makes agriculture impossible or at least extremely difficult. It is estimated that almost 90 percent of the mountainous area of Honduras has slopes with gradients that range from marginal for agriculture to those that do not permit agriculture or even decent pasturage. Obviously, small farmers attempting to cultivate the mountainsides have a difficult task.

Deterioration of the mountain environment, poor productivity, and crop losses result in poverty for small farmers. Soil erosion and the loss of soil fertility is caused by the marginality of the available slopes and the methods used in farming. Cultivation techniques are slash-and-mulch or slash-and-burn employing simple tools, such as machetes, hoes, axes, digging sticks, and possibly wooden plows, without the use of fertilizer. The rudimentary storage facilities of most farm households also contribute to the loss of a sizable percentage of crops to rodents and pests.

Most of the rural population live in one- or two-room thatchroofed huts (bahareques) built of adobe or sugarcane stalks and mud with dirt floors. As plantation agriculture and livestock raising have increased, many peasants have found it increasingly difficult to find a plot of land suitable for a house. Many who formerly lived on the edges of larger estates found themselves forced off the land by enclosure, or the fencing off of private property. Consequently, there is much "fence housing" in Honduras, in which a squatter and his family, squeezed off land by the development of plantation crops, live in a tiny hut in the narrow space between a public road and the landowner's fence.

Poor food productivity and low incomes lead to a very low standard of living in the countryside, where illness and poor diets are endemic. The typical diet of the rural population consists of corn--by far the primary staple and most widely planted crop--made into tortillas, beans--the main source of protein--cassava, plantains, rice, and coffee, with only occasional supplements of meat or fish. Although pigs and chickens are widely raised (each rural household usually has a few), meat is infrequent in most rural diets, as are green vegetables. Given the nature of the typical diet and the fact that food production has been insufficient for the country's needs, widespread malnutrition complicates the population's fragile health. Population growth exacerbates the problem, creating a vicious cycle of more mouths to be fed, yet lower agricultural productivity, as well as transportation and distribution difficulties.

Indeed, a general attitude has evolved in which most of the affected population has related few of its health problems to their real causes, such as malnutrition and environmental hazards. Instead, given a state of affairs where, for example, there is not a dramatic shortage of food but only a continuously inadequate diet, the population fails to relate infectious diseases, mental retardation, and low productivity to conditions of poor diet and lack of sanitation. Because these problems have always existed for the affected population, they tend to be accepted as normal.

Honduras - Urban Life

Urban life in Honduras, as in many developing countries, highlights the contrasts between the life-styles of the rich and the poor. For the wealthy and powerful elite, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula offer blocks of elegant apparel shops and jewelry stores. Tall office buildings provide headquarters for business and professional people. Comfortable homes shelter well-to-do families; a good education and family contacts secure promising future careers for their children.

For the vast majority of Tegucigalpa's urban population, however, living conditions are dismal. Migrants to Tegucigalpa initially settled in the slums of the center city. When these became inadequate to house the numbers arriving, the migrants began to invade land on the periphery of the city. A majority of these barrio residents live in cuarterías (rows) of connected rooms. Some cuarterías face the street, while others are arranged in double rows facing each other across a block-long alley, barely wide enough for a person to walk through. Usually windowless, the substandard rooms are generally constructed of wood, with dirt floors. The average household contains about seven persons, who attend to all functions of daily living in the single room, although sometimes a small kitchen stands in the rear covered by the overhang of the tile roof. For those living in the rooms facing an alley, the narrow passageway between buildings serves both as a sewage and waste disposal area and as a courtyard for as many as 150 persons.

The major survival tactic for some of this population seems to lie in the large and extended families that deliberately cluster together into a single room, sharing a roof, a kitchen, and their incomes. Both relatives and unrelated individuals may be involved in such a network of social, psychological, and economic support. Others, however, have not been so fortunate. Given migratory labor, high unemployment, and income insecurity, male-female relationships often are unstable. Fathers frequently desert their families, leaving the care and support of children entirely to mothers who struggle to earn enough for survival. Some children are abandoned to live on the streets, particularly if the mother has become sick, has died, or has been unable to find work.

The diet of lower-sector urban dwellers when they can afford to buy what they need is somewhat better than that of their rural counterparts. In times of economic hardship, however, urban families, who must pay for all the food they consume, most likely reduce or alter their food consumption habits. Speaking of a potentially better diet in urban areas can, therefore, be misleading. When urban families have the cash to purchase basic foods, their per capita daily average consumption of calories, protein, and carbohydrates are all likely to be higher than the average in rural settings. However, the consumption of calories, and carbohydrates in particular, still falls significantly below the minimum daily recommended allowance. Other foods sold mainly in city markets, especially meat such as poultry, are consumed primarily by the middle- and upper-class population and do not benefit the lower class.


Around 90 percent of the population in Honduras is racially mestizo (people of mixed indigenous and European ancestry). The remainder of the population is composed of indigenous natives (7 percent); people of African descent, or blacks (2 percent); and those of European descent, or whites (1 percent). Mestizos, whites, and most blacks are culturally ladinos (those who practice Hispanic cultural patterns). Ladinos speak Spanish, and the majority are members of the Roman Catholic Church, although Protestant denominations made significant gains in membership among this group in the 1980s, especially in the larger cities.

<>Indigenous Groups
<>Non-Ladino Groups

Honduras - Indigenous Groups

The Lenca, the largest indigenous group (numbering about 50,000), live in the west and in the southwestern interior. Some anthropologists argue that the Lenca still practice some traditional customs and that they are the survivors of a once extensive indigenous population that lived in the departments of Lempira, Intibucá, La Paz, Valle, Comayagua, and Francisco Morazán. Controversy has arisen, however, regarding the identification of this community as indigenous because their native language is no longer spoken and their culture is to a large extent similar to the ladino majority.

Other smaller indigenous groups are scattered throughout Honduras. Several hundred Chortí, a lowland Maya community, formerly lived in the departments of Copán and Ocotepeque in western Honduras. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Chortí migrated to the northeast coastal area, and by the early 1990s, they were practically extinct. The Chorotega migrated south from Mexico in pre-Columbian times and settled in the department of Choluteca. Like the Chortí, the Chorotega speak Spanish, but they retain distinct cultural and religious traits. A population of Maya live in the western departments of Copán and Ocotepeque and still speak a Mayan dialect. Several hundred Pipil live mainly in the isolated northeast coastal region in the departments of Gracias a Dios and parts of Yoro and Olancho. About 300 Tol or Hicaque are found in an isolated mountainous area of rain forests.

Honduras - Non-Ladino Groups

The non-Hispanic (nonladino) groups in Honduras consist of the Black Carib, the Miskito, the black population in the Islas de la Bahía, and a sizeable number of Arab immigrants. The Black Carib (also known as Garifuna in Belize and Guatemala) settled in the early 1800s in coastal villages along the Caribbean. Originally descendants of freed black slaves and native Carib from the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, they arrived in Honduras when they were deported from Saint Vincent by the British in 1797 and resettled in the Islas de la Bahía off the coast of Honduras. From there, they moved to the mainland coast of northern Honduras. Their language, which they continue to speak, is a Carib-based creole. Their cultural practices are similar to those of the Black Carib who live in Belize and Guatemala.

The approximately 10,000 Miskito are a racially mixed population of indigenous, African, and European origin. Their language, still spoken by several thousand, is a creole based on Bahwika (in the Misumalpan family of languages), with contributions from West African languages as well as Spanish, English, and German. Spain's failure to conquer and colonize the eastern Caribbean lowlands of Central America made this area attractive to English-speaking buccaneers, traders, woodcutters, and planters during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This remote area also became a refuge for black slaves and freed slaves. In the northern coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua, unions of indigenous people and the African and British immigrants produced a racially mixed group known as Miskito, who have a predominantly indigenous language and culture. Miskito settlements are situated near the Laguna de Caratasca and the banks of the Río Patuca in northeasternmost Honduras and are an extension of the larger Miskito communities in eastern Nicaragua. When the Nicaraguan Miskito population near the Río Coco was uprooted by the Nicaraguan government for security reasons in the early 1980s, many Nicaraguan Miskito migrated to Honduras.

Interestingly, although the Miskito and Black Carib peoples have similar racial origins, the Miskito are generally considered by Hondurans to be indigenous people, whereas the Black Carib are generally considered to be black. This difference in ethnic identification is probably a reflection of the different cultures of the two groups; Black Carib culture retains more African elements in its folklore, religion, and music than does the culture of the Miskito.

The Miskito and Black Carib peoples have traditionally been economically self-sufficient through subsistence agriculture and fishing. In the early 1990s, the men, however, were often forced to seek supplementary income by working outside their own regions. Thus, Miskito and Black Carib men often spend long periods separated from their families.

The population of the Islas de la Bahía is a black or mixed white-black population. The inhabitants are descendants of Englishspeaking whites and of blacks who came from Belize and the Cayman Islands during the middle of the nineteenth century. This population speaks mostly creole or Caribbean English, and their traditions are distinctly West Indian.

Another distinct ethnic group is the thriving Arab community. Arab immigrants from the Middle East (especially Palestine and Lebanon) began arriving in Honduras during the early part of the twentieth century. Because they held passports issued by the Ottoman Empire, they came to be called turcos in Honduras. This community retains many of its traditions and continues to be perceived as culturally distinct, although this distinctiveness is becoming blurred through increased intermarriages with other groups. Economically, the Arab community prospered first as merchants in the area of the banana plantations on the Caribbean coast. Following their success, many moved to the larger cities, where they became powerful economically, especially in manufacturing and commerce.

Honduras - RELIGION

The constitution guarantees religious freedom and the separation of church and state; however, the Roman Catholic Church has been a powerful institution in Honduras since colonial times. As a result of various tensions between the church and the state throughout the centuries, in the 1880s the Roman Catholic Church was stripped of some of its economic and political power. Nevertheless, in the twentieth century the church has remained an important social actor, and the vast majority of Hondurans have remained Roman Catholic. Church schools receive government subsidies, and religious instruction is part of the public school curriculum.

The Roman Catholic Church in Honduras launched an ambitious evangelical campaign in the 1950s. The program's aim was to invigorate church membership and encourage more active participation in church activities. By the 1960s and 1970s, this activism had grown among certain sectors of the church into denunciations of the military's repression and the government's exploitation of the poor. This social activist phase in the Roman Catholic Church ended after large landowners in Olancho brutally murdered ten peasants, two students, and two priests in 1975. After this incident, the government took measures to dissuade the more activist factions in the church from continuing their actions. Expulsions and arrests of foreign priests took place, and some peasant centers with ties to the church were forced to close. The Roman Catholic Church retreated from its emphasis on social activism during the last half of the 1970s but resumed its criticism of government policies during the 1980s.

Protestant, especially evangelical, churches have undergone a tremendous growth in membership during the 1980s. The largest numbers are found in Methodist, Church of God, Seventh Day Adventist, and Assemblies of God denominations. These churches sponsor social service programs in many communities, making them attractive to the lower classes. The evangelical leadership generally exerts a conservative influence on the political process.

Although Protestant membership was estimated at only 100,000 in 1990, growth of Protestant churches is apparently seen as a threat by Roman Catholic leaders. Instances of criticism leveled at evangelicals by Roman Catholic leaders have increased; however, such criticisms have generally been ineffective in stemming the rise of converts to Protestant denominations.

Honduras - EDUCATION

Honduras lacked a national education system until the late 1950s. Before the reforms of 1957, education was the exclusive privilege of those who could afford to send their children to private institutions. The government of Ramón Villeda Morales (1957-63) introduced reforms that led to the establishment of a national public education system and began a school construction program.

The Honduran constitution states that a free primary education is obligatory for every child between the ages of seven and fourteen. The reality of the Honduran educational system is much more grim. Because of a lack of schools, understaffed schools, the high cost of materials needed for these schools, and the poor quality of public education, a good education is still largely the privilege of the few who can afford to send their children to private institutions.

Statistical information shows that the state of the public education system remains poor. Figures cited by the Ministry of Education suggest that Honduras suffers from widespread illiteracy (more than 40 percent of the total population and more than 80 percent in rural areas). A significant percentage of children do not receive formal education. Especially in rural areas, schools are not readily accessible. When they are accessible, they often consist of joint-grade instruction through only the third grade. Schools are so understaffed that some teachers have up to eighty children in one classroom.

Only 43 percent of children enrolled in public schools complete the primary level. Of all children entering the first grade, only 30 percent go on to secondary school, and only 8 percent continue to the university.

The quality of instruction in Honduran public schools is greatly impaired by poor teacher training. The situation is worsened by the extremely low wages paid to teachers, lack of effective and up-to- date instruction materials, outdated teaching methods, poor administration, and lack of physical facilities.

Because of the deficiencies of public education, the years since 1970 have seen the proliferation of private schools. With few exceptions, however, private education is popularly viewed as a profit-making enterprise. Great skepticism remains regarding the quality of the education that private schools offer.

The National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras--UNAH) is the primary institution of higher learning. Located in Tegucigalpa, the UNAH was founded in 1847 and became an autonomous institution in 1957. The university has approximately 30,000 students, with branches in San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba.

Honduras counts three private universities, none of which is yet considered a credible educational alternative to the prestigious UNAH. One is the extremely small José Cecilio del Valle University in Tegucigalpa. Another private university is the Central American Technological University, also in Tegucigalpa. The third private university is the University of San Pedro Sula.

Honduras - HEALTH

In Honduras the quality of and access to health care are directly tied to income levels. Adequate health care is available to those able to pay the high cost. Health care for the urban and rural poor is extremely limited. The lack of health care for the majority of the population is starkly apparent in its poor health. Widespread malnutrition is responsible for 34 percent of children experiencing stunting when they are between two and five years of age. In addition, most of the population lacks access to running water and sanitation facilities--all key contributing factors to the country's high infant mortality rate (63 per 1,000 live births) and to a relatively low life expectancy rate (64.9 years) in 1992.

Health services are not readily accessible to a majority of the population. An estimated 1.3 million Hondurans were without access to health care in 1990. In the isolated regions of Honduras, there are almost no physicians. The ratio of doctor to population in 1984 was one to 1,510. Government clinics often are empty shells lacking adequate personnel, equipment, and medicines.

Infectious and parasitic diseases are the leading causes of death. Gastroenteritis and tuberculosis are serious problems. Diseases such as influenza, malaria, typhoid, and pneumonia, once believed to be under control, have returned in force because of a lack of preventive measures. The foreign-exchange crisis of the 1980s has resulted in periods when vaccines and other preventive medicines were not available. Alcoholism and drug addiction are other health concerns mentioned by the Ministry of Health. The rapid spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is also of great concern to Honduran health authorities. The incidence of AIDS appears to be particularly high in San Pedro Sula.

The cholera epidemic that originated in Peru hit Honduras in late 1991. Because of poor sanitation conditions, health officials were frightened that the disease would quickly spread throughout the country. The government launched an educational campaign months before the first case was reported, stressing personal hygiene as a prophylaxis against cholera. By the middle of 1992, however, more than 100 people had been diagnosed as having cholera.

Although the country's national public health system was created in 1959, the date when the Honduran Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño del Seguro Social--IHSS) began to operate, the proliferation of health services to all regions of the country has been painfully slow. For years, people have had to travel to Tegucigalpa to avail themselves of public health service. During the 1970s, when the government made an effort to expand health services, the INSS opened a medical center in San Pedro Sula. However, in El Progreso, only fifty kilometers away and the third largest city in the country, IHSS services were not available until 1992. Population growth, the implementation of economic austerity measures by the government in the 1990s, and the present lack of facilities seem to suggest that public health services in Honduras are likely to remain inadequate in the near future.


The 1980s saw a heightened awareness and concern over ecological issues. Even though Honduras is not overpopulated, its land resources have been overexploited, and there are numerous reasons for concern regarding deforestation and the prevalence of unsustainable agricultural practices. Enforcement of the few regulations already in effect is uneven.

Honduras has two major national parks. One is the Tigra Cloud Forest Park near Tegucigalpa. The other is the Copán National Park near the border with Guatemala, which houses the Mayan ruins. Honduras also has established the Río Plátano Reserve. Furthermore, the government has attempted to encourage ecotourism in the Islas de la Bahía, where biologically rich coral reefs are located.

As a consequence of the expansion of environmental consciousness, the Honduran Association of Ecology (Asociación Hondureña de la Ecología--AHE) was founded in the 1980s. Following the example set in the foundation of the AHE, many other groups formed with the stated purpose of promoting ecologically sound policies. Unfortunately, in 1993 many sources of international funding dried up following the discovery of corruption in a number of Honduran ecological groups. Despite the continued presence of many environmental problems, ecologists are encouraged by the increasing environmental consciousness among all sectors of the population. The fact that environmental concerns are part of the policies advocated by peasant organizations, labor unions, and other interest groups is a sign that the ecological movement has come to maturity.

Honduran society provides examples of the most severe problems faced by developing nations. Yet within that same society, the unique relationship between social and political forces provides potential for progress in alleviating the country's problems.

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the
Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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