Aborted Reform, 1954-63

Honduras Table of Contents

The relative peace that Honduras had enjoyed for nearly two decades was shattered by a series of events during 1954, Gálvez's last year in office. Tension throughout the region had been increasing steadily as a confrontation developed between the left- leaning government of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala and the United States. Part of the confrontation involved the expropriation of United Fruit Company lands and charges that the Guatemalan government was encouraging agitation among the banana workers.

In 1952 the United States had begun considering actions to overthrow the Guatemalan government. Honduras had given asylum to several exiled opponents of Arbenz, including Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, but Gálvez was reluctant to cooperate in direct actions against Guatemala, and the plans were not activated. By early 1954, however, a major covert operation against Guatemala was being organized, this time with greater Honduran cooperation. One reason for the cooperation was the Honduran government's concern over increased labor tensions in the banana-producing areas, tensions that the fruit companies blamed, in part, on Guatemalan influence.

Starting in early May 1954, the tensions escalated to strikes. First, a series of strikes broke out against United Fruit Company operations on Honduras's Caribbean coast. Within a few days, the strike spread to include the Standard Fruit Company operations, bringing the banana industry in the country to a near standstill. The strikers presented a wide range of grievances, involving wages, working conditions, medical benefits, overtime pay, and the right to collective bargaining. Initial government efforts to end the strike failed, and work stoppages began to spread into other industries. By May 21, the number of strikers was approaching 30,000, and the nation's economy was under severe strain.

As the strike was spreading, Honduras was also becoming more deeply involved in the movement to topple the Arbenz government in Guatemala. In late May, a military assistance agreement was concluded between the United States and Honduras, and large quantities of United States arms were quickly shipped to Honduras. Much of this incoming assistance was passed on to anti-Arbenz rebels commanded by Castillo Armas. In June these forces crossed into Guatemala and after several days of political maneuvering but little actual fighting, Arbenz fled into exile, and Castillo Armas became president. With the specter of foreign influence over the strike thus removed, negotiations began, and the strike ended in early July. Labor leaders who had been accused of having ties with Guatemala were jailed, and the final settlement, which met few of the original demands, was signed with elements more acceptable to the government and the fruit companies than to the workers. Despite the limited gains, however, the strike did mark a major step toward greater influence for organized labor in Honduras and a decline in the power of the fruit companies.

In the midst of these conflicts, the campaign for the 1954 elections continued. Unhappy with some of Gálvez's gestures toward liberalization, Carías, despite his advanced age, decided to run for president and secured the PNH nomination. This move, however, split the party, and more moderate members broke away to form the National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario--MNR). Their nominee was former vice president Abraham Williams Calderón. The split in the ruling party encouraged the PLH, who united behind Ramón Villeda Morales, a Tegucigalpa physician who was seen as somewhat to the left of center in the party's political spectrum.

Both the campaign and the election were remarkably free and honest. On October 10, 1954, approximately 260,000 out of over 400,000 eligible voters went to the polls. Villeda Morales won a large plurality with 121,213 votes, Carías received 77,041, and Williams carried 53,041. The PLH also gained a plurality in the legislature. Under Honduran law, however, a majority of the total votes was required to be elected president; Villeda Morales lacked a majority by just over 8,000 votes. The stage was set for a repeat of the confusing paralysis of 1924 because the constitution required, first, that two-thirds of the members of the new legislature must be present and vote to choose a president and, second, that the victor must receive two-thirds of the legislature's vote. To complicate matters further, Gálvez left for Miami reportedly to obtain medical treatment although some sources claim he merely fled the country, leaving the government in the hands of Vice President Julio Lozano Díaz.

Unable to reconcile their differences and unwilling to accept Villeda Morales as president, the PNH and MNR deputies boycotted the legislature, producing a national crisis. The constitution provided that in case of congressional deadlock the Supreme Court of Justice would select the president. Dominated as the court was by Carías appointees, the PLH opposed such a course of action. At this juncture, Lozano Díaz suddenly suspended the legislature and announced that he would act as president until new elections could be held. He declared that he would form a national government with cabinet members taken from all major parties and received pledges of support from all three candidates in the 1954 election. A Council of State, headed by a PLH member but including members of all three major parties, was appointed to replace the suspended congress until a constituent assembly could be chosen to write yet another constitution.

Lozano Díaz began his period as president with a broad base of support that eroded rapidly. He unveiled an ambitious development plan to be financed by international loans and increased taxes and also introduced the nation's first labor code. This document guaranteed workers the right to organize and strike but gave employers the right of lockout and forbade strikes in public services. The code also embodied some social welfare and minimum- wage provisions and regulated hours and working conditions. All these provisions gained him some labor support, but in later months relations between the president and labor began to sour.

As time passed, it became clear that Lozano Díaz had ambitions to replace the traditional parties with one that he controlled and could use to help prolong his hold on power. He reduced the Council of State to a consultative body, postponed elections, and set about forming his own party, the National Unity Party (Partido de Unidad Nacional--PUN). The activities of other parties were limited, and, in July 1956, Villeda Morales and other PLH leaders were suddenly arrested and flown into exile. A few weeks later, the government crushed an uprising by 400 troops in the capital. Public opinion, however, was becoming increasingly hostile to the president, and rumors of his imminent fall had begun to circulate.

Following the August 1956 uprising, Lozano Díaz's health began to deteriorate, but he clung stubbornly to power. Elections for the legislature in October were boycotted by most of the opposition, who charged that the process was openly rigged to favor the president's supporters. The results seemed to confirm this charge, as the PUN candidates were declared the winners of all fifty-six seats in the congress. The joy of their victories was short, however. On October 21, the armed forces, led by the commanders of the army and air force academies and by Major Roberto Gálvez, the son of the former president, ousted Lozano Díaz and set up a military junta to rule the country.

This coup marked a turning point in Honduran history. For the first time, the armed forces had acted as an institution rather than as the instrument of a political party or of an individual leader. The new rulers represented younger, more nationalistic, and reform-minded elements in the military. They were products of the increased professionalization of the 1940s and 1950s. Most had received some training by United States military advisers, either in Honduras or abroad. For decades to come, the military would act as the final arbiter of Honduran politics.

The military's largest problem was the holding of elections for a legislature and the selection of a new president. A system of proportional representation was agreed upon, and elections were held in October. The PLH won a majority, and in November, by a vote of thirty-seven to twenty, the assembly selected Villeda Morales as president for a six-year term beginning January 1, 1958.

The new PLH administration undertook several major efforts to improve and modernize Honduran life. Funds were obtained from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stabilize the currency and from the World Bank to begin paving a highway from the Caribbean coast to the capital. Other efforts were undertaken to expand education. The greatest attention was devoted to passing a new labor code, establishing a social security system, and beginning a program of agrarian reform.

The reform program produced increasing opposition among the more conservative elements in Honduran society. There were scattered uprisings during Villeda Morales's initial years in power, but the military remained loyal and quickly crushed the disturbances. Military support began to evaporate in the early 1960s, however. Waning military support was in part a result of rising criticism of the government by conservative organizations such as the National Federation of Agriculturists and Stockraisers of Honduras (Federación Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos de Honduras-- Fenagh), which represented the large landowners. The shift in the military's attitude also reflected concern over what were viewed as more frequent rural disorder and growing radical influences in labor and peasant groups. Deteriorating relations with neighboring states, notably Nicaragua, also contributed to the tension. The major causes of friction, however, were the president's 1957 creation of the Civil Guard (Guardia Civil)--a militarized police commanded directly by the president rather than the chief of the armed forces--and the prospect of another PLH victory in the 1963 elections.

The elections were scheduled for October 1963. As in 1954, the PLH was confronting a divided opposition. The PNH nominated Ramón Ernesto Cruz, but a faction split off and ran the son of ex- president Carías. The PLH ignored the wishes of their president and nominated Modesto Rodas Alvarado, a charismatic, highly partisan figure believed to be to the left of Villeda Morales. All signs pointed to an overwhelming victory for the PLH, an outcome that the military found increasingly unpalatable.

Rumors of a coup began circulating in late summer of 1963. The United States endeavored to make clear its opposition to such action--even dispatching a high-ranking officer from the United States Southern Command in the Panama Canal Zone to try to convince the chief of the armed forces, Air Force Colonel Oswaldo López Arellano, to call off the coup. Villeda Morales also tried to calm military fears, taking the carbines away from the Civil Guard and opposing plans for a constitutional amendment to restore direct command of the military to the president. All these efforts failed, however. Before dawn on October 3, 1963, the military moved to seize power. The president and the PLH's 1963 presidential candidates were flown into exile, Congress was dissolved, the constitution was suspended, and the planned elections were canceled. Colonel López Arellano proclaimed himself president, and the United States promptly broke diplomatic relations.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress