The Honduran Coup and Cultural Policy

March 8, 2010

In 2006 I took a leave from my position as a history professor at Trinity College in Connecticut and left for Tegucigalpa, to serve as the director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH). Founded in 1952, the IHAH is a government agency of the Honduran Ministry of Culture (SCAD), dedicated to conserving, protecting, and in some sense, officially defining, the country’s national culture. The institute maintains archaeological sites and has traditionally undertaken ethnographic and historical research in its elaborations of lo hondureño. Since the 1970s, however, it has worked closely with a parallel set of agencies—the Honduran Institute of Tourism, under the Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR, founded in 1975), as the government began to emphasize tourism, including “culture tourism,” as a means of generating hard currency.

Following the needs of the international tourist industry, the IHAH’s work came to emphasize the archaeological sites in the western part of the country in constructing Honduran national identity, particularly the ruins of Copán, an ancient Mayan city, about seven miles from the Guatemalan border. Not coincidentally, the Copán Archaeological Park, a major source of revenue, became the pillar of official national culture in the IHAH. The institute, originally planned as a serious endeavor in both research and nation building, came to produce a vision of our national identity that was functional to the needs of the international tourism industry. I call this the Mayanization of Honduras.

Mayanization began as an ideological project with the dictatorship of General Tiburcio Carias Andino (1933–48), in the years when the Honduran state was just beginning to foment the creation of an official national identity. This process was linked to, among other factors, certain elements of North American archaeology and banana industry, together with Ladino elites. This discourse presumes the inevitable collapse of the “remnants” of the indigenous civilizations, as well as the rescue of the country’s monumental -“ruins” that remain inert. Mayanization thus emphasizes the official rescue of an ancestral legacy for the purpose of constructing a national identity, while ignoring the lived realities of the contemporary indigenous peoples of Honduras. The Ministry of Tourism consolidated Mayanization as a set of institutional priorities in the 1970s, and the Ministry of Culture became subordinated to this mission.

The government tourism entities have always enjoyed abundant resources that came directly from the congressional budget. The Ministry of Culture and the IHAH never enjoyed any serious government investment. In part these institutions survived because of resources from the international community, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1975 and 2008, about $3.7 million was invested in the Copán archaeological site in the form of donations and loans from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, UNESCO, and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. There was also significant investment for technical, financial, and academic resources from universities in the United States, including Harvard, Pennsylvania State, and Tulane.

The Mayanization of the Honduran state has directly underwritten the IHAH, which generates 75% of its income from visits to the parks and museums it runs, and 90% of that figure comes from the Copán Archaeological Park alone. Yet this commercialized approach to national identity has little to do with Honduran cultural reality. The fact is, the Maya occupied only a small territory in Honduras, and their real impact in the country’s colonial and postcolonial history was very limited compared to that of more populous ethnicities, for example, the people of African descent who began arriving in the 16th century and especially the Garifunas, who arrived beginning in the late 18th century.

Under the influence of the official tourism industry, neither the history nor the cultural legacy of other Honduran ethnicities were prioritized in the IHAH’s heritage policies. Even the archaeological history of the Lenca, the most populous ethnic group in Honduras, was undervalued and ignored, with the exception of some publications and sporadic authorizations given to foreigners to investigate the ancestral remains of humans in the western area of the country, where Lenca communities are located, along with a folkloric reflection or two about guancascos (annual ceremonies between villages) and indigenous religious traditions. The archaeological history of the Garifunas, the largest group of Afro-descendents in the country, was also ignored, and the largest department in Honduras, Olancho, home to the indigenous Tawahka and Pech peoples, was all but abandoned by the IHAH.

And so, in 2006, I was appointed director of the IHAH. Together with Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, minister of culture under President Manuel Zelaya and a noted historian of Honduras, I drew up a new cultural policy to reverse Mayanization while at the same time respecting the beauty and achievements of this great ancient culture. We aimed to promote a more democratic, holistic policy that would acknowledge the plurality of our country’s ethnic groups, while also expanding the institute’s administrative infrastructure. The key to our approach was to move away from the archaeologized, Maya-centric vision of national culture prepackaged for tourist consumption to emphasize the living traditions of the nine ethnic groups recognized by the Honduran state (Tawahka, Pech, Tolupan, Lenca, Miskitu, Maya Chortí, Garifuna, Isleños de Habla Inglesa, Nahua). Moreover, we wanted these groups themselves to directly participate in building this new approach to national culture—thorough, inclusive, and participatory.

We understood such an effort not only as the right thing to do, but also as sanctioned by law. In 1997, the Law of Cultural Patrimony—the first of its kind in Honduras, originally passed in 1984—was reformed to include the protection and promotion of “Cultural Manifestations of living indigenous peoples, their languages, their historic traditions, their knowledge and technologies, their forms of organization, their value systems, their religious practices and the places associated with them,” as well as “religious organizations and celebrations, music and dance, the prototypes of artisanal production and culinary art, oral tradition,” under the Ministry of Culture’s mandate. With this official sanction, Honduran ethnicities little by little began to cultivate their own subjectivity within the official national identity, always counter-acting the Mayanization promoted by government tourism agencies.

To accomplish this, we painstakingly built a network of contacts in the various regions where these groups live, with whom we coordinated several research and education projects, without the Tourism Ministry’s participation. Over the years, we developed relationships with regional cultural centers, libraries, common citizens, private regional foundations, local governments and their tourism offices, and teachers who promote cultural heritage. We did this in the valleys of Sula, Comayagua, and Jesús de Otoro, and in the departments of Copán, Santa Barbara, Olancho, Colón, and Gracias a Dios in the Mosquitia. We worked intensely for years with organized ethnic groups, particularly in Copán with the Maya Chortí, in Olancho, in Colón, and the Mosquitia with the Pech, the Twahka, and the Misquitos. We also worked with Lenca communities in Intibucá and Lempira, with Garifunas in the Trujillo zone, La Ceiba and Tela in the departments of Colón and Atlantida, and the surrounding area of Omoa in the department of Cortés, in the Caribbean zone.

Sadly, this work abruptly came to an end as a result of the June 28 coup in Honduras. The de facto government summarily fired almost all of the ministers in Zelaya’s cabinet, and almost all the upper-level civil servants in charge of autonomous institutions in Honduras, including myself. On July 20, the de facto government’s new minister of culture, Myrna Castro, publicly accused Pastor Fasquelle’s Ministry of Culture of having promoted “progressive” and “revolutionary” publications in conspiracy with the government of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. According to the coup authorities, we had accomplished little more than “indoctrinating” Honduran ethnic groups.1


When I joined the IHAH as director in 2006, I was assigned 10 tasks, the most immediate of which was “to complete the institutional restructuring of the IHAH in its administrative, technical, and legal aspects.” We focused on creating three new administrative units: Information Technology, Publications, and Public Relations. This was no easy task, given that there were no funds available to create new jobs. Obsolete positions were redefined, and some staff positions were deemed ineffective. In 2007 for the first time the IHAH had an IT unit, with a director and an assistant, that would support investments in computers and design a technology policy that would complement our approach to cultural policy. One of the first things we did was create a modern website for the IHAH (, which we could use to diffuse IHAH publications, which grew and diversified like never before, in large part because the new Publications unit had, for the first time, its own personnel, director, and assistant, both recruited for their professional and literary abilities, without political considerations. The Public Relations unit also got its own office and equipment.

When I became the director of the institute, the History Unit had accounted for less than 1% of the institutional budget in the decade between 1996 and 2006. This changed significantly between 2007 and 2009. With the intention of completing one of the most thorough administrative reforms conceived and implemented by the IHAH in coordination with the Ministry of Culture, for the first time in its more than 50 years of institutional life, the ancient discipline of history would not only receive the respect it deserved in Honduras, but also the economic resources and connections with other history institutions, both in Honduras and abroad.

With new personnel, new investments in equipment, and a new vision for national identity founded in the country’s living cultural heritage, regional delegations of the IHAH in the northern region, the east, and Catacamas–Cuevas de Talgua, began integrating the new approach to cultural policy designed in our Tegucigalpa office. IHAH personnel, as never before, traveled to regions that were previously marginal to the institute’s interests with the purpose of learning about and valuing the work and experiences of the people they visited, as well as getting their advice.

Visits of ethnic culture bearers were financed to other regions of the country to counteract ethnic isolation, and little by little to promote a national vision of ethnic heritage and its relationship with the national identity, with the support of the state. At the same time, the IHAH museums were redesigned to include not only the most advanced ethnographic and historical research about ethnicities in Honduras, but also the participation of the ethnic groups themselves. It was with that spirit that we established a research -center called the Ethnohistoric Archive; just a bunch of unorganized boxes on the floor of an office room, it was previously known as the “dead archive.”

This new archive was integrated in the Documentation Center of Historic Research of Honduras (CDIHH), which later suffered terribly during the seven months after the coup d’etat, especially after its coordinator, Yesenia Martínez, was fired on November 13 with a notice signed by Minister Castro. In the CDIHH, workshops would have been designed to enable the ethnic groups to research themselves in the way that some anthropologists and historians have long studied them in the IHAH. This way the ethnicities, or at least their intellectuals, would be able to produce ethnographic and ethnohistoric portraits that Honduran anthropologists have done of them since the mid-1950s.

Besides systematically valuing historical research as the institute had never done before, we also promoted important initiatives and projects, always in coordination with the SCAD, together with the ethnic groups of Honduras, the living cultures, especially the Maya Chortí and their National Indigenous Mayan Chortí Council (CONIMCHH) in Copán Ruinas, and with the Ethnocommunity Development Organization (ODECO) of the Garifunas in the Ceiba region.

First there were pedagogical workshops called “From Oblivion to Memory,” an effort to train mestizo, indigenous, and Afro-Honduran teachers in the history of the African diaspora in Central America. We worked with UNESCO on this project starting in August 2008, with workshops organized and carried out the following November and December. This activity was the first in Central America as part of “The Slave Route,” a project funded by UNESCO that grew out of the subregional workshop “Multicultural Societies: Strengthening a Proactive Cultural Effort of African Descendants in Central America,” held in Costa Rica in 2005.

“From Oblivion to Memory” yielded a four-part series of teachers’ manuals that fill the gaps in both official discourse and scholarly texts about the African diaspora’s history and its impact in the mestizaje process in Central America. The four installments, edited by Rina Cáceres of the University of Costa Rica and the writer Quince Duncan, not only include the best contemporary historiography about the subject, but also were designed specifically for Central American secondary education teachers. After starting in Honduras, Cáceres and Duncan brought the workshops to other countries in the region.

In Honduras, the participants in these workshops were elementary and secondary teachers from various regions. They were selected carefully. In the end, 85 people were trained—78 of them teachers from nine departments in Honduras, together with five guides from the Museum of the Fort of San Fernando de Omoa, on the Caribbean coast, and two guides from the National Museum of the History of the Republic in Tegucigalpa. Both institutions are part of the IHAH and serve as spaces for cultural education. Even more important was the fact that there was a representative participation in the workshops. In the first workshop 50% were from Afro-Honduran origin and the other half from the mestizo population; in the second workshop half were teachers who worked in indigenous communities (Tawahkas, Miskitos, Tolupanes). Several of the teachers were indigenous themselves.

Furthermore, these projects included documentaries and books, reflecting a new emphasis on publications about ethnicities in the IHAH magazine, Yaxkin. The magazine changed radically, from its design to its content, which was now much more interdisciplinary, leading to a more complete appreciation of pre-Columbian archaeology that went well beyond the Mayan world and the Sula Valley, giving a much more thorough rendition of Honduran history. Yaxkin and other publications were distributed all over the country.

One of the most emblematic projects of our new cultural policy was called “Portraits of the People.” This project would have issued 1,000 copies of a photography book, featuring ethnohistoric descriptions, accompanied by a DVD with music and sounds recorded in the same zones where the ethnic groups live, which are often difficult to access. Guillermo Anderson, national songwriter, was in charge of the music and sound recordings; the photographer was Pablo Delano, a Puerto Rican internationally known for his photography work in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad and Tobago. (See for examples of the photography.)

I coordinated the project based on decades of researching and publishing ethnohistoric articles about Honduras. The initial funds came from the Cultural Diversity Program administered by the Ministry of Culture by Salvador Suazo, a Garifuna intellectual who has published widely in this field. We were off to a great start, but then the coup took place. When I was fired, “Portraits of the People” was cancelled, along with our other projects undertaken in partnership with Honduran ethnic groups.


In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Myrna Castro, the coup-installed head of the Ministry of Culture, explained that I was fired because I was “indifferent” to the Copán ruins, the government’s cash cow, as tourism began to decline after the coup.2 The profound political crisis caused by the military coup had indeed accelerated and deepened the impact of the worldwide recession, which had already begun at the end of 2008, on Honduras. The income of the IHAH went downhill rapidly as international cooperation was frozen, especially from the U.S. and Spanish embassies. Financing from the Inter-American Development Bank was also paralyzed, and in any case the coup authorities in the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Tourism despised the cultural policy that we had been promoting since 2006. And as I told the Chronicle, my dismissal likely had something to do with my protest at the de facto government’s plan to install a military reservist office in the National Archives, in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention, which forbids military intervention in matters of cultural patrimony.

Castro, allied with the maximum authorities of Ministry of Tourism and the National Chamber of Tourism in Honduras and other institutions and personalities, coordinated my expulsion from the IHAH with an official notice dated September 1. Her charge that I and others had used our positions to “indoctrinate” Hondurans in a subversive ideology was little more than a cover for her own endorsement of the old “Mayanized” vision of Honduran national culture, and a condemnation of our policies designed to transcend the pretentious, tourist-friendly folklorism promoted by the Ministry of Culture for three decades. Today there may be a new government in Honduras, but the IHAH authorities imposed under the coup government remain in their positions under President Porfirio Lobo. I suspect that they will continue dismantling the more inclusive cultural policy we devised.

Darío A. Euraque is professor of history at Trinity College. This essay is taken from an upcoming book about the Honduran coup and cultural policy tentatively titled Lempira Executed Once More: Culture, National Identity, Tourism, and the Ancient Maya in Modern Honduras.

1. Video of Minister Castro’s denunciation of our cultural policy as Chavista indoctrination can be found, at the time of this writing, at “Repudio a Myrna Castro, ministra golpista 0001,”

2. Marion Lloyd, “Anthropologist Is Fired in Honduran Cultural Debate, Roiling Researchers,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 16, 2009.


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