Ramon Villeda Morales (1909-1971) served as president of Honduras from 1957 to 1963. During his tenure, he instituted many reforms in the fields of labor, health, and education. He was ousted from office in a military coup and sent into exile.
Ramon Villeda Morales was born in Ocotepeque, Honduras on November 26, 1909. He studied medicine at the National University of Honduras, where he served as president of the federation of university students. He married Alejandra Bermudez Milla, a teacher from a politically active family. The couple moved to Germany in 1938 to attend graduate school. Returning to Honduras in 1940, Villeda Morales started a pediatric clinic in Santa Rosa de Copan and then opened a private clinic in Tegucigalpa, the capital city.
Reorganized Liberal Party
Villeda Morales helped to reorganize the Honduran Liberal Party. He demonstrated political and oratorical skills as well as personal charisma. His supporters called him "Little Bird," for his small stature and public speaking abilities. These traits helped him to advance within the party hierarchy, becoming its chairman by 1949. "The real reason Dr. Villeda Morales gained the leadership of the Liberal party was the prestige of his social position and the fact that there were not many men in the party with the ambitions and personal connections that he possessed. It is necessary to recognize that Dr. Villeda Morales was an exceptional Honduran. Supremely cultured in a country in which the uncultured predominate, apart from the riffraff which characterize the followers of the two parties, 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." according to Carlos Contreras, as quoted in Bananas, Labor, and Politics in Honduras: 1954-1963, by Robert MacCameron. Villeda Morales founded the party's daily newspaper, El Pueblo. Because of his successful management of municipal party elections, he received his party's presidential nomination in 1953.
Villeda Morales was a candidate in the presidential election of October 10, 1954. His strongest opponents were Carias Andino and Abraham Williams, both representing the National Party. He won a plurality, but not a majority, of the votes. Under Honduran law, a majority of the votes were needed to win an election. To determine a winner, two-thirds of the Congress needed to be present to vote on the issue. However, National Party deputies boycotted that session of Congress in which the vote was supposed to take place. When President Galvez left the country for medical treatment, the vice president, Julio Lozano Diaz proclaimed himself constitutional dictator on December 5, 1954.
Villeda Morales led a general strike in July 1956 against the Lozano Diaz regime and was exiled to Costa Rica. A military coup in October 1956 led to the ouster of Lozano Diaz, thus permitting Villeda Morales to return to Honduras. The three-man military junta appointed Villeda Morales to be ambassador to the United States.
President of Honduras
Villeda Morales was elected president of the Constituent Assembly in 1957. The Assembly elected him president of Honduras in November, by a vote of 37 to 20. He took office on December 21, 1957. Sometime between his election and inauguration, Villeda Morales may have taken part in a conspiracy called "Blue Waters." Supposedly he and other Liberal party members met with Kenneth Redmond, president of the United Fruit Company, an American company which grew bananas in Honduras; Whiting Willauer, U.S. ambassador to Honduras; and high-ranking Honduran military officers. The meeting reportedly took place at the United Fruit Company villa on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, known as Blue Waters. There Villeda Morales reputedly renounced radical reforms in the areas of labor and agriculture in exchange for substantial loans from the United States and the support of the Honduran military.
In 1959, rebel officers took control of the National Police headquarters, the telegraph office, and the military academy. Troops loyal to the government stopped the rebellion, but Villeda Morales was concerned about his safety. He reorganized his security forces, dissolving the National Police and creating a 2000-man Civil Guard under the control of the Ministry of Government and Justice. The military felt the Civil Guard threatened its autonomy.
As president, Villeda Morales set in motion development programs to modernize Honduras' highways, ports, and air terminals and to improve public health and education. On June 1, 1959, Villeda Morales signed into law the Labor Code, which guaranteed workers rights in the areas of wages, hours, working conditions, vacations, workmen's compensation, severance pay, and maternity leave. It also covered labor-management relations, the right to strike, and the settlement of labor conflicts. In July 1959, a new social insurance law went into effect dealing with coverage of unemployment, health, old age, maternity, work accidents, disability, and death.
Relations with Fidel Castro's Cuban government had been cordial until April 1961. At that time Honduran policy toward Cuba underwent a drastic change, presumably because Villeda Morales was following policy directives of the U.S. government. The Central Intelligence Agency and State Department were both pressuring Latin American governments to break diplomatic relations with Castro. Villeda Morales cooperated closely with CIA front organizations in Honduras.
In June 1960, Villeda Morales visited Miami to address the Chamber of Commerce of the Americas. He urged that the Central American Common Market be implemented as quickly as possible. He also asserted that the Latin American republics needed to protect foreign investment. Honduras became one of the first Latin American nations to qualify for development money under the Alliance for Progress. This organization was created by President John Kennedy to assist Latin American nations with land reform and economic development in order to prevent the spread of Castro-type revolutions. Villeda Morales allowed the United States to set up a radio station on Swan Island off the coast of Honduras to disseminate anti-Castro propaganda to Cuba. According to Alison Acker in Honduras: The Making of a Banana Republic, "By allowing this use, Villeda drew Honduras into a U.S.-Cuban fight and involved it in a propaganda war quite foreign to the country's realities. Honduras was soon drawn even more deeply into U.S. regional strategy."
In accordance with the goals of the Alliance for Progress, Villeda Morales signed an agrarian reform law in September 1962, which was opposed by landowners and U.S. fruit companies because it sought to bring idle land into production and to ease the pressure from peasant organizations. To appease the fruit companies, Villeda Morales offered them land concessions, the credit for their export crops of coffee, beef, and cotton, while also satisfying the peasants' desire for land. In November 1962, Villeda Morales made an official visit to the United States, where Kennedy received him at the White House. After that meeting, the emphasis of agrarian reform shifted from the expropriation of private property to the resettlement of state-owned lands. Villeda Morales had a close relationship with Serafino Remauldi, a CIA operative and labor representative, which assured that an AFL-CIO alliance of peasant and labor groups dominated labor. Conservatives in Honduras opposed the reform program. Scattered uprisings occurred during Villeda Morales's first years in power, although the military remained loyal to him and put down the disturbances. In the early 1960s, military support for Villeda Morales began to evaporate, mostly due to his creation of the Civil Guard.
A Coup Ends Democracy
The Liberal Party nominated Modesto Rodas Alvarado to run in the election of 1963, against the wishes of Villeda Morales, who supported his former foreign minister, Alvarado Puerto. It appeared that the Liberals would win an overwhelming victory, which the military was set against. Ten days before the elections, on October 3, 1963, Colonel Oswaldo Lopez Arellano seized power in a military coup that killed hundreds of people. Villeda Morales and Rodas Alvarado were flown into exile. The congress was dissolved, the constitution was suspended, and elections were canceled.
From San Jose, Costa Rica, Villeda Morales said publicly that now "all must renew the fight to wipe out militarism in Latin America and vindicate democracy," as reported in the newspaper El Dia. The U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Charles Burrows, said over the "Voice of America" that the coup was justified because of Communist infiltration of the government of Villeda Morales. The U.S. Information Service disagreed with the statement the next day and the U.S. government cut all ties with Honduras. Two months later, the United States recognized the Arellano government after he stated publicly that he hoped to return the Honduran government to civilian constitutional rule at some time in the future.
Villeda Morales returned to Honduras. When Ramon Ernesto Cruz was elected president in 1971, Villeda Morales was sent to New York as the Honduran representative to the United Nations. Shortly after his arrival, he died of a heart attack on October 8, 1971.
Further Reading on Ramon Villeda Morales
Acker, Alison, Honduras: The Making of a Banana Republic, South End Press, 1988.
Biographical Dictionary of Latin American and Caribbean Political Leaders, edited by Robert J. Alexander, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, edited by Barbara A. Tenenbaum, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996.
Honduras: A Country Study, edited by James D. Rudolph, The American University, 1983.
Lentz, Harris M., Heads of States and Governments: A Worldwide Encyclopedia of Over 2,300 Leaders, 1945 through 1992, McFarland and Co., 1994.
MacCameron, Robert, Bananas, Labor, and Politics in Honduras: 1954-1963, Syracuse University, 1983.
Morris, James A., Honduras: Caudillo Politics and Military Rulers, Westview Press, 1984.