Freedom in the World 2008


Conflicts between political interests and the media reached new heights in 2007, as President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales attempted to impose more favorable coverage of his administration. Meanwhile, the country was shaken by persistently high levels of gang-related crime as well as protests over social issues including education, the environment, and land rights.

The Republic of Honduras was established in 1839, some 18 years after independence from Spain. The country has endured decades of military rule and intermittent elected governments, with the last military regime giving way to civilian authorities in 1982. However, the military continued to be the most powerful institution in the country through much of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the 1982 constitution, Honduran presidents have the power to veto the military and choose its leaders; the first president to exercise that authority did so in 1999.

In the decades following the transition to civilian rule, power alternated between the Liberal Party (PL) and the National Party (PN). The most recent turnover occurred in November 2005, when Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the PL defeated the PN’s Porfirio Lobo Sosa to win the presidency. In the concurrent legislative elections, the PL took control of the unicameral National Congress, winning 62 of the 128 seats. The PN was left with 55 seats, and three minor parties split the remainder. The run-up to the balloting had been marred by political violence. In several cases, PL supporters were left injured after severe beatings, and at least two were killed.

In 2006, various groups—including teachers, students, environmental activists, indigenous communities, doctors, and taxi drivers—took part in strikes, roadblocks, and demonstrations supporting an array of social causes and economic demands. Protests and strikes continued into 2007. In July, demonstrators demanded mining law reforms that would protect the environment and indigenous land rights; the protests were broken up by force, resulting in at least 59 arrests and 18 injuries.

The effectiveness of Zelaya’s institutional management was called into question in 2007, when the National Registry of Persons was shut down due to a lack of funds. Internal corruption was blamed for the organization’s failure. The National Electric Energy Company also teetered close to bankruptcy during the year, and Zelaya passed control of the ailing firm to the Ministry of Defense in June.

The Inter-American Development Bank in 2007 recognized the failure of its 2001–06 antipoverty program for Honduras, although the UN Development Programme reported a slight decline in the poverty rate, from 65 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2006. The highest poverty rates occur in rural areas, where about half the population lives. Many families rely on remittances—worth nearly $2.36 billion in 2006—from the more than one million Hondurans living in the United States, but some 700,000 of those are undocumented immigrants, and an increase in deportations in 2007 threatened this source of income.

Honduras implemented the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which linked six Latin American countries and the United States, in April 2006. However, Honduran exports to the United States dropped from $684.1 million in 2005 to $663.8 million in 2007, while imports from the United States rose. Some economists believe that Honduras will be the country most adversely affected by DR-CAFTA.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Honduras is an electoral democracy. The 2005 elections, although marred by violence and vote-counting problems, were considered free and fair by international and local observers. The constitution provides for a president and a 128-member, unicameral National Congress, both elected for four-year terms. The number of votes received by a party’s presidential candidate determines its proportional representation in the Congress. The legislature is currently dominated by the ruling Liberal Party and the opposition National Party, but three smaller parties also hold seats—the Democratic Unification Party (five), the Christian Democratic Party (four), and the National Innovation and Unity Party (two).

Official corruption continues to cast a shadow over the political scene. The army exerts considerable if waning influence on the government, and officers have been found guilty of involvement in drug trafficking and related cartel conflicts. The 2006 passage of a Transparency Law was marred by claims that it contained amendments designed to protect corrupt politicians, and in 2007, three commissioners were appointed to the regulatory Access to Public Information Institute in a reportedly politicized manner. Honduras was ranked 131 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press. Newspapers circulate freely, numerous radio and television stations broadcast without interference, and there is unrestricted access to the internet. Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful business interests with intersecting political and economic ties, and although the Supreme Court in 2005 struck down restrictive defamation laws that protected public officials, many journalists continue to practice self-censorship. Lack of access to government officials and information is a significant obstacle for many reporters. Corruption among journalists—including accepting payment for favorable coverage, or moonlighting as public relations officials—also remains a problem. President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales announced in May 2007 that television and radio stations must broadcast 10 two-hour programs outlining the achievements of his administration. He claimed that unfairly negative media coverage had caused a climate of instability in the country. While the mandated television programs were suspended after only three had aired, many felt that Zelaya had abused his power and posed a threat to free speech.

Freedom of religion is respected, and academic freedom is also usually honored.

Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of association are generally observed, and citizens have the right to freely assemble. The National Congress passed a Citizen Participation Law in 2006, protecting the role of civil society groups and individuals in the democratic process. Labor unions are well organized and can strike, but labor actions often result in clashes with security forces. Labor, gay and transgender rights, land rights, environmental, and Afro-Honduran activists remain vulnerable to threats and repression.

The judicial system is weak and inefficient, and there have been reported cases of lengthy pretrial detention, denial of due process to detainees, and harsh prison conditions, including the beating and abuse of inmates by security forces. About 79 percent of prisoners in Honduras are awaiting trial.

The criminal justice system has been buffeted by high levels of street crime and harsh police crackdowns. While the murder rate dropped from 154 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1999 to 48 per 100,000 in 2007, it is still among the highest in the region. Authorities reported 2,404 homicides between January and September 2007, and it is estimated that by the end of 2007, approximately 3,140 murders were committed. The murder rate increased from 8.2 homicides per day in 2006 to 8.6 in 2007. Most of the slayings are attributed to youth gangs, including transnational groups like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street, which are especially active in the cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. The government has adopted an “iron fist” approach to the problem, making membership in a gang punishable by up to 12 years in prison and using the military to conduct raids and help maintain order in major cities. Security personnel, particularly the police, have also acted independently or with other vigilante groups to commit extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and illegal searches. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Honduras, such as Casa Alianza, have reported the killings of hundreds of young adults and children in “social cleansing” campaigns. According to one NGO, some 2,000 youths have died since the adoption of the “iron fist” policy. In an October 2006 ruling on the extrajudicial killings of three youths and one adult in 1995, the Inter-American Human Rights Court ordered officials to initiate programs for the security forces that would address the rights of children and youths, as well as a public-awareness campaign to curb violence against children.

Indigenous and Afro-Honduran residents have faced various forms of abuse by property developers and their allies in recent years. In 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered protection measures for the Garifuna community of San Juan Tela, but Honduran authorities have yet to fully comply. Also that year, the World Bank agreed to look into accusations of corruption in a controversial property-titling project that has failed to accommodate indigenous and Afro-Honduran land rights. The Garifuna population suffers disproportionately from a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic; the United Nations reports that about 8.4 percent of Garifuna adults carry the virus, compared with 1.5 percent in the general population. Honduras accounts for about 60 percent of HIV cases in Central America.

Women are vulnerable to exploitation by employers, particularly in the low-wage maquiladora (assembly plant) export sector, where hundreds of thousands of workers have reportedly been denied full wages and forced to work overtime in the past decade. Calls to update labor laws to protect such workers have gone unanswered.

Child labor is a problem in rural areas and in the informal economy. A recent national household survey revealed that nearly 25 percent of youths aged 13 to 15 and 42 percent of those aged 16 to 18 are working. Casa Alianza estimates that as many as 10,000 girls and boys are working as prostitutes, many of them rural children brought to tourist areas along the coast. According to UNESCO, 29 percent of Honduran children drop out of school before fifth grade, and youths head about 10 percent of Honduran households. The overall population is dominated by young people: 41 percent are under 15, and 20 percent are aged 15 to 24.

2008 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)