Honduras Feature

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Honduras Today

Government

Honduras is a multiparty democracy with an elected president and one-house congress, and is divided into 18 provincelike divisions known as departamentos (departments), and 296 municipal entities called municipios. That said, what's on paper has differed from reality during much of its history.

The country has had an astonishing 67 presidents plus another six governing councils since 1839. From 1821 to 1839, when Honduras formed part of a larger Central American federation with Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, another 18 presidents ruled. June 2009 brought a painful reminder that military coups still do happen in Latin America, when leftist President Manuel Zelaya was bundled up in his pajamas and spirited out of the country by the army early one Sunday morning. (At the time of the coup and during its aftermath, visitors to Copán and the Bay Islands reported they barely knew anything was going on, though. Nearly all the footage that dominated international news came out of Tegucigalpa during those days.)

The crisis political that followed—that's the euphemistic term everybody here prefers to use—dried up investment and stagnated tourism for months. Free elections were held that November—that's when they had been scheduled anyway—and Honduras's temporary status as an international pariah ended, although a few holdout countries still refuse to recognize the new government. You'll still see the occasional rally in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in support of the now-exiled Zelaya, but most walk right on by without paying any attention, breathing a sigh of relief that the troubles of 2009 are over.

Economy

You've heard the term banana republic? Honduras was the original, a 19th century nation beholden to one export crop and to the multinational corporations that called the shots and controlled its cultivation and export. Bananas are still an important sector of the country's economy and have made significant recovery following their near wipeout here during 1998's devastating Hurricane Mitch.

Coffee has overtaken bananas as Honduras's number-one agricultural export, however, with sugar, pineapples, mangoes, and cultivated shrimp also growing in importance. Honduras remains, unfortunately, a largely agrarian country dependent on products whose prices are set by the vagaries of the world market. That fact of life has meant a real rollercoaster ride for its economy through the years.

The country's maquiladora sector—where raw materials are temporarily imported for assembly in factories here and then re-exported as full-fledged products—remains strong. The majority of such firms are Asian owned. Critics decry the maquila system as keeping citizens penned to low-wage jobs, but pay is comparable, or better, than the typical Honduran earns elsewhere.

Hondurans living abroad send remittances of approximately $2 billion annually back home, contributing over one-fourth of the country's gross domestic product. Without the remittances, many families could not survive. Honduras is placing new hopes in international free-trade treaties. It and its Central American neighbors completed negotiations of an agreement with the United States in 2006 and with the European Union in 2010.

Tourism

Visitor numbers in Honduras have been respectable through the years, thank you very much, considering it must compete with Guatemala and Costa Rica, the two tourism powerhouses in the isthmus. The Mayan ruins at Copán and the underwater wonders (and relaxed pace of life) of the Bay Islands have always been crowd pleasers. However, Honduras has struggled—not always successfully—to let visitors know that there's much more to the country than those two main hotspots.

The tourism ministry in the current administration has launched new campaigns to inform visitors about Lenca villages, colonial towns, and the natural wonders of the Lago de Yojoa and the Mosquitía. The industry has had success and achieved acclaim with its new international marketing slogan: "Honduras: the Central America you know, the country you'll love."

Tourists from other Central American countries, primarily El Salvador and Guatemala, contribute a plurality of visitor numbers, with the United States following in next place. The industry here is looking to promote itself more strongly to North America and Europe than it has done in the past. It has also forged alliances with its counterparts in other Central American countries, marketing the entire isthmus as a multinational tourist destination.

Religion

Honduras's constitution guarantees complete religious freedom. No official statistics exist on how the country's population divides up into religious groups, and figures depend on who is doing the talking.

Honduras is a nominally Catholic nation, that historic bulwark of faith in Latin America, and Honduras's Catholicism took center stage in 2005 when Tegucigalpa's archbishop, the well-liked Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez, was seen as a strong candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II. The church's own sources cite the number at 81% of the population, but polls conducted by Gallup here suggest that the country is quite religiously diverse. The Catholic church may not have as strong a following as it claims, with just less than half the population identifying itself that way.

The explosive growth in the past three decades has been among the one-third of the population who belong to evangelical and Pentecostal groups. They hold services in small houses of worship, occasionally storefront churches, and with their revival-style singing, you'll always hear them before you see them. The remainder of the population belongs to several Protestant denominations, with Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches represented here. Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses have small but thriving communities here, too.

Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula each have a synagogue, with San Pedro also having the country's only mosque. Some 2% of Honduras's population is of Arab lineage—that's the highest figure of any country in the Western Hemisphere—descended from Palestinian merchants who migrated to Honduras in the early 20th century. The majority of Honduran Arabs are Palestinian Christians, however.

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