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Hondurans campaign for democracy, 1944
President Tiburcio Carías—founder of the National Party of Honduras—governed Honduras throughout the 1930s and 1940s (known as “decades of Dictators” in Central America as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala were also under lasting rule of their respective, oppressive dictators). His presidency started on February 1, 1933, and lasted until January 1949. On November 16, 1943, Carías and the National Party rigged and swept the municipal elections. This victory gave him the opportunity to modify the Honduran Constitution to allow him to stay in office for an extended period of time. Congress labeled Carías the Founder of Honduran Peace and Benefactor of the Country.
However, the fixed elections and constitution changes raised suspicions among military authority figures and liberal congressmen. A coup attempt occurred on November 21, started by military captains, members of the honor guard, and the select actors from the Liberal Party. Jorge Ribas Montes, a 23-year-old honor guard captain, was behind the demonstration, but the charge failed to gain any momentum for change. All groups involved in the coup failed to organize a coordinated action during the attempt, but this was the first time that military figures acted along with the civilian ideals.
Starting in May of 1944, civilian unrest became prevalent throughout the cities of Honduras. The dictators of the neighboring countries of El Salvador and Guatemala were overthrown (see “El Salvadorans bring down a dictator, 1944” and “Guatemalans overthrow a dictator, 1944”), and Hondurans yearned for the same reversal of power. Many National University students marched in the streets of Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba, and San Pedro Sula demanding freedom of elections, freedom of press, and the removal of President Carías. Other engineering and medicine students quit attending classes and refused to sign petitions that declared loyalty to Carías’ presidency. During this time there were also other minor protests in the form of strikes by storeowners and shopkeepers, but due to a lack of widespread support, the business strikes mellowed out over time.
May proved to be an active starting point in civilian protest and in early June, 300 women, including novelist Argentina Díaz Lorenzo, marched on the Presidential Palace demanding the release of political prisoners and freedom of elections. Carías made an effort to quell the protests of the women by making false promises to review points of contention.
July 4, 1944, proved to be a pivotal day of the campaign when a well-prepared group of around 200 University students and women marched yet again to the Presidential Palace, this time asking for Carias’ resignation and revisions to the Constitutions. One of the active participants was Emma Bonilla de Larios, daughter of the Liberal Party leader. On the same day a group of 2,500 raucous protestors attempted to enter the Palace and demand Carias’ resignation. In order to cope with the unrest, Carías’ administration deployed the military throughout the country to prevent violence while permitting these protests, marches, and demonstrations.
Two days after these nonviolent marches, tension between the soldiers and protesters hit a peak. In San Pedro Sula, 1,000 people marched through the main city square demanding freedom of elections, constitutional re-writes, and the resignation of the president. A soldier fired a shot into the crowd of protestors, which initiated shooting by other soldiers, and the “San Pedro Massacre” began. Estimates of deaths ranged from 20 to144.
The protests, signs, ideas, and propaganda that the activists were using paralleled the American democratic ideals and also, ironically, those of Carías’ own administration before WWII. The campaigners made a case to appeal for U.S. intervention to remove Carías from office, but the U.S. refused using the Good Neighbor Policy as reasoning. This refusal of aid was seen as the U.S. encouraging Carías’ dictatorship.
In response to the demonstrations, on July 10, Carías’ followers organized a rally in Tegucigalpa where 8,000 people honored Carías and compared him to American President Franklin Roosevelt. Since the government controlled the majority of the media, the pro-administration marches were over-exaggerated in pro-government newspapers and radio broadcasts. The propaganda made claims of progress and change while dissidents remained in their homes, knowing this change and progress was not occurring.
The rallies and protests diminished in effect and frequency when Carías made it apparent that he would not change his ways. He continued to rule until succeeded by his war minister Juan Gálve, who won the 1948 election.