The Lower Class

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.

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