The Upper Class

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.

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