The restored Mayan ruins of Copán in the west, first discovered by the Spaniards in 1576 and rediscovered in dense jungle in 1839, reflect the great Mayan culture (see Maya) that arose in the region in the 4th cent. It had declined when Columbus sighted the region in 1502, naming it Honduras (meaning "depths") for the deep water off the coast. Hernán Cortés arrived in 1524 and ordered Pedro de Alvarado to found settlements along the coast. Comayagua and Tegucigalpa developed as early mining centers. In a war (1537–38) between Spain and the indigenous population, Spain crushed the resistance after the death of the native leader, Lempira.
In 1821, Honduras gained independence from Spain and became part of Iturbide's Mexican Empire; from 1825 to 1838 it was a member of the Central American Federation. Thereafter, conservative and liberal factions fought bloody wars to control the republic, and Honduras was subjected to frequent interference from its Central American neighbors. Great Britain long controlled the Mosquito Coast and the Islas de la Bahía; William Walker attempted a "liberation" in 1860. Although Honduras often sought to reestablish Central American unity, the attempts were frustrated by political and personal animosities.
Foreign capital, plantation life, and conservative politics constituted a trio of dominant forces that held sway in Honduras from the late 19th cent. to the end of the regime (1933–48) of Tiburcio Carías Andino, when the liberal movement was reawakened. The rights of workers were not effectively defined and protected until a labor code was adopted in 1955 and a new constitution was promulgated in 1957. That year Ramón Villeda Morales became the first liberal president in 25 years.
Shortly before the scheduled presidential election in 1963, Villeda was overthrown and replaced by a military junta under Oswaldo López Arellano. The illegal immigration of several hundred thousand Salvadorans across the ill-defined El Salvador–Honduras border and the expulsion of many of the immigrants by Honduras led to a war with El Salvador in July, 1969. Although the war lasted only five days, its effects were serious, including the country's withdrawal from and the subsequent collapse of the Central American Common Market as well as continued border incidents. (A peace treaty was not signed until 1980.) In 1971 Ramón Ernesto Cruz was elected to succeed López, only to be ousted by López the following year. In late 1974 the Caribbean coast of Honduras was devastated by a hurricane. In 1975, López was himself the victim of a coup after accepting $1.25 million in bribes from the United Brands company. His successor was in turn ousted in 1978 in a military coup led by Gen. Policarpo Paz García.
As political unrest in the surrounding areas increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the United States pressured the Honduran government to hold democratic elections, and in 1982 a new constitution that called for free elections was promulgated and Robert Suazo Córdova became president. During the 1980s Honduras served as a base for insurgent activity against the government of Nicaragua by rebels known as Contras. The country's economy became heavily dependent on aid from the United States, which supported the rebel bases. In 1985, Jose Siméon Azcona del Hoyo was elected president in a disputed election. By 1988 popular discontent with the Contra presence resulted in massive demonstrations and the declaration of a state of emergency. In 1989, Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero was elected to the presidency; the Contra war ended the following year.
In the 1990s Honduras benefited from regional peace and cooperation as it worked to establish economic viability independent of the United States. In 1992 an agreement was signed with El Salvador, largely settling the border controversy between the two countries; the last disputed section of the border was demarcated in 2006. Carlos Roberto Reina, of the Liberal party, was elected president in 1993; Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé, also a Liberal, won the 1997 presidential election. Late in 1998 the country was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which left 5,600 people dead and thousands missing; much of the country's crops and livestock were destroyed. In 2001, Ricardo Maduro Joest, of the National party, won the presidency.
Manuel Zelaya Rosales, the Liberal party candidate, was elected president in 2005. Zelaya moved leftward during his presidency, aligning Honduras with Hugo Chávez's Venezuela in a number of instances, in part to obtain preferential oil prices. This and his proposal, first broached in Oct., 2008, to revise the constitution, alienated many in his own party, which controlled the National Congress, and in Honduras's conversative political and business elite. Despite the supreme court's ruling his referendum on a constitutional assembly illegal, he proceeded with plans for a June, 2009, nonbinding vote on the assembly, which was seen by many as a first move toward ending the presidential term limit. The resulting power struggle between the president and the supreme court, National Congress, and military led the court to order his arrest in June, and the military then forcibly exiled Zelaya. Roberto Micheletti, the speaker of the congress and a Liberal, was appointed interim president.
Zelaya's ouster was denounced internationally, with United Nations and Organization of American States calling for his restoration. Honduras was suspended from the OAS, and a number of nations imposed economic sanctions; Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias Sánchez, undertook to negotiate a resolution to the crisis, but both sides proved unyielding. Zelaya returned to Honduras clandestinely in September and sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy. An agreement in late October to resolve the situation soon began to collapse, and the congress subsequently refused to restore Zelaya in a vote held (December) after the presidential election.
In the November election, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the candidate of the conservative National party, was elected president. Lobo allowed Zelaya safe passage into exile after his Jan., 2010, inauguration. The warrants for Zelaya's arrest were dismissed in Mar., 2011, but the charges resulting from his attempt to hold a constitutional referendum were not dismissed until May. Zelaya and Lobo then signed an accord that led to Zelaya's return at the end of May and the subsequent end of Honduras's OAS suspension. In July a truth and reconciliation commission concluded that the ouster of Zelaya amounted to a coup, but that he had broken the law and bore responsibility for having created the situation that led to his ouster. In Dec., 2011, in response to increasing criminal gang and drug-related violence, due in large part to N Honduras having become a significant transit point for drugs moving from South America to Mexico, the Honduran congress voted to permit the military to take on policing duties. The presidential election in Nov., 2013, was won by Juan Orlando Hernández, a businessman and politician who was the National party candidate; he received 37% of the vote. Xiomara Castro, Zelaya's wife and the second-place candidate, denounced the result and accused the government of fraud.