Ramón Villeda Morales: The “Little Bird” Who Brought Big Changes and Honor to Honduras

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In a country perennially struggling with issues of lack of social justice, equality and corrupted by successive inept governments, Honduras’ Ramón Villeda Morales (or as his supporters dubbed him, “little bird”) fought to free his country from self-destructiveness and to alleviate the problems afflicting a nation better known for its repeated revolutions and annual coups.

Ramón Villeda Morales was born on November 26, 1909 in Ocotepeque, a southwestern Honduran department bordering Guatemala and El Salvador. While studying pediatric medicine at Honduras’ Universidad Nacional Autónoma in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Villeda Morales also served as president of the prestigious Federation of University Students. After graduating in 1938, he moved with his wife, Alejandrina Bermudez de Villeda, to Germany, where he attended medical school. He returned to Honduras in 1940 and, at age 31, opened a pediatric clinic in Santa Rosa de Copán, in western Honduras, and then a second one in Tegucigalpa.

With an intense interest in politics, Villeda Morales soon joined the Partido Liberal de Honduras Honduran Liberal Party (PLH), where he quickly demonstrated charisma and exceptional oratorical talents. His prodigious public speaking capabilities soon earned him his lifetime nickname “Pajarito,” meaning little bird, from his supporters inside the party. Combined with his personal skills, Villeda Morales’ social ties and professional political connections propelled him into the position of chairman of the PLH by 1949. Carlos Contreras, the country’s former foreign minister, eulogized him by observing that: “Dr. Villeda Morales was an exceptional Honduran. Supremely cultured in a country in which the uncultured predominate, a stranger to the violence so rooted in the Honduran marrow, and possessed of an eloquence and personal enchantment rare among so many ill-bred.”

Elections in a Tense Period
By early 1954, covert hostility was beginning to be recorded in the all-important banana industry, echoing similar tensions being experienced by neighboring Guatemala. In May 1954, these spiking labor tensions led to widespread strikes in Honduras’ banana district. The strikers presented a wide range of grievances such as inadequate wages, poor working conditions and scarce medical benefits. Initial government efforts to end the strike failed and work stoppages began to spread to other industries and all parts of the country. By May 21, the number of strikers rapidly approached 30,000. The Honduran economy depended heavily on bananas as a vital primary export so much, in fact, that it was the first country to be dubbed with the dubious distinction of being a banana republic. No wonder that the on-going strikes brought the country to the verge of economic collapse and civil strifes.

In the midst of this troubled epoch, Villeda Morales was selected as the Liberal Party’s candidate in the October 1954 presidential race. In his first political campaign at the age of 45, in which he heavily relied on his communication skills and natural charisma, he proved to be an extremely formidable politician. Unlike his adversaries and in spite of his lettered background, Villeda Morales never hesitated to travel to the most remote and humble areas of Honduras in order to reach out to the chronically neglected rural population. This served him well even in practical terms, since he won a plurality of the votes -almost twice as many- compared to his closest rival, Tiburcio Carías Andino, the candidate of the Honduran National Party.

As an example of his great oratorical skills, he came up with a chant in a number of remote villages as a method to increase votes, that is still rembered today: Tempranito, Tempranito, a votar por Pajarito! This translates to “Early, Early, to vote for Pajarito.” This chant is still used today by other candidates, such as during the During last year’s internal elections of the PLH, Mauricio Villeda Bermudez, Ramón Villeda’s second eldest son, used this same chant to support Elvin Santos’ candidacy to become the PLH’s candidate saying: Tempranito, Tempranito, a votar por Elvincito. Without a doubt, Elvin won the election.

However, under the provisions of the Honduran constitution in effect at the time, a candidate had to win a majority of the total votes in order to be elected president. Villeda Morales had captured 121,213 votes of 260,000 voters that had gone to the polls, consequently lacking an absolute majority by less than 9,000 votes. In such circumstances, according to the law, Congress was supposed to select the president. However, on the designated date, the National and Reformista parties boycotted the session. Since two-thirds of the members were required for a quorum, Congress was not able to choose the new president.

Taking advantage of this political stalemate, the country’s vice-president, Julio Lozano Díaz, declared himself chief of state, vowing to form a national government and select cabinet members from all major parties. However, it soon became clear that Lozano Díaz had other plans in mind. He limited the powers of the Council of State, turning it into a mere consultative body, and drastically reduced the activities of other institutions. In protest of these actions, in July 1956, Villeda Morales led a nationwide strike demonstrating against the excesses of the Lozano Díaz regime. The growing number of his followers, the videllistas, bred consternation in the de facto government which decided to arrest Villeda Morales and fly him into exile to Guatemala and later to Costa Rica. Meanwhile, by August, it became clear that Lozano Díaz had lost the backing of the population, which was demonstrated by a second uprising, this time in Tegucigalpa, which was crushed by government troops, resulting in more than a hundred casualties.

Villeda Morales Takes Office
On October 21, 1956, the armed forces formally ousted Lozana Díaz from power and set up a junta to rule Honduras, subsequently allowing Villeda Morales to return. The then ruling three-man junta named Villeda Morales as Ambassador to the United States. A year after the junta had deposed Lozana Díaz, general elections were held and Villeda Morales was elected for a six-year term, starting on January 1, 1958. The new Honduran president inherited a seriously impaired country, calling it “the land of the 70s—70 percent illiterate, 70 percent rural, 70 percent illegitimate.” The years of the Lozana Díaz administration had gravely impacted the Honduran economy, saddling Villeda Morales with a budget deficit of $5 million.

Labor problems as well as growing numbers of leftists also worried many Hondurans. Moreover, the U.S. State Department began to see the new president in a worrisome political light while social reformers regarded him as being in the tradition of such great reformers as Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz and Costa Rican president Pepe Figueres. Villeda Morales began to liberalize Honduran society, in a process which is still known today as villedismo, implementing such policies as pro-labor legislation, land reform and the introduction of social security programs.

Significant Changes
During his presidential tenure, Honduras underwent many significant changes. In June 1959, the Honduran labor code was formalized. It guaranteed workers greater rights, such as the right to strike, and regulated many aspects of worker protections, including wages and conditions. The next month, a new social security program took effect which covered unemployment, health, old age, maternity, work accidents, disability and death benefits. Villeda Morales also improved Honduras’ financial situation. He requested that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) triple Honduras’ annual quota. The financial boost received in return was invested in agricultural and infrastructural development programs. His policy won the support of President Kennedy, who was known to admire Villeda Morales and declared that Honduras was a good candidate to receive Alliance for Progress benefits.

In fact, thanks in large degree to Villeda Morales’ policies, Honduras became one of the first Latin American countries to qualify for the Alliance. The funds provided to Honduras were invested in low cost housing and sanitation projects, for the former rural doctor very well understood the harsh conditions and social injustices from which Honduran peasants had long suffered. Today, one of the largest middle class neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa is called the Colonia Kennedy, with a proud statue of JFK at the entrance. He also implemented agrarian reforms in order to give the peasantry greater access to the land which was disproportionately owned by the domestic elite and foreign fruit companies. In March 1961, the Instituto Nacional Agrario (INA) was created, which was intended to be the main body responsible for agrarian reform.

Another Coup
Before the agrarian reform could be sufficiently institutionalized, it was already time for new elections. Villeda Morales’ mandate was coming to an end, and because the Honduran constitution provided that he could not serve a second term, the Liberal Party nominated Modesto Rodas Alvarado to run in the 1963 presidential race. As a result of the many successes of Villeda Morales, there were few doubts that the Liberal Party would win the election by a compelling plurality.

Meanwhile, the military was growing suspicious of the president, especially since he had initiated his own personal civil guard. By his doing so, the military felt that Villeda Morales was threatening its extensive prerogatives, afforded by the Honduran Constitution. Fearing that the Liberal Party would further reduce their constitutional rights and with the armed forces’ generally being opposed to another Liberal Party victory, the military orchestrated a coup ten days before the elections. Hundreds of people were killed as General Oswaldo López Arellano seized power and, once again, Villeda Morales, along with presidential candidate Alvarado were flown to exile in Costa Rica by the golpistes. On October 9, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, in solidarity with Villeda Morales, and worried about the political stability of Honduras, withdrew U.S. military personnel and economic aid along with the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras to remain in the United States indefinitely. In fact, JFK never authorized the return of the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras. The country’s projected land reforms, as well as a number of welfare and social programs, were summarily cancelled. From this moment on, and apart from a very few and very short interludes, the military ruled Honduras until 1982.

Villeda Morales was selected to be the Honduran representative to the United Nations in June 1971 by Ramón Cruz of the National Party. The latter briefly had served as president from 1971-1972, before the armed forces staged yet another coup. In October 1971, Villeda Morales died of a heart attack, shortly after arriving in New York City to take up his appointment as Honduras’ ambassador to the U.N.

Villeda Morales’ legacy of devoted public service is still very much remembered today in his country. The president modernized Honduras by updating the public health, education, and social security programs. Although his presidency was not extensive in terms of years, he left an imperishable mark as being the first Honduran president willing to make the changes necessary to give his country the needed reforms and democratic institutions, while always keeping in mind the day-to-day well-being of his fellow Hondurans, irrespective of their situation. His leadership during the country’s most revolutionary period is a legacy that lives on today through his his beloved wife Doña Alejandrina, and through his children who hold top cabinet positions in the current administration. Their influential strongholds in the Partido Liberal de Honduras, demonstrate the weight of the Villeda tradition and are democratic guarantees of Honduras’ future.