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Honduras

Executive Summary

The United States is Honduras’ most important economic partner.  During the past year, the Honduran government has continued to implement reforms to attract investment and promote economic growth, but meaningful improvement has been slow.  Macroeconomic reforms and continued commitment to fiscal stability have led to a stable macroeconomic environment, ongoing financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and stable credit ratings from the major international agencies.

Foreign investors operating in Honduras operate thriving enterprises, but all face challenges including unreliable and expensive electricity, corruption, unpredictable tax application and enforcement, high crime, low education levels, and poor infrastructure. Squatting on private land is a growing problem in Honduras and anti-squatting laws are poorly enforced. Continued low-level protests and uncertainty surrounding the November 2021 general elections are additional concerns for private investors. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report points to the difficulty of starting a new business, the high burden of paying taxes, and poor contract law enforcement as major disincentives to private investment.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy was both immediate and severe.  The March 2020 shutdown of the formal and informal economies placed a tremendous strain on workers who rely on daily wages.  Approximately 175,000 Hondurans were temporarily suspended from their jobs, 250,000 became unemployed, and almost 300,000 saw their income decrease by at least 40 percent.  This economic contraction was further exacerbated by back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes in November, which caused severe flooding and mudslides, damaging roads, washing away 134 bridges, and killing over 100 people. The combined effects of COVID-19 and the November hurricanes caused an economic recession, with GDP contracting by 8 percent in 2020 and job losses as high as 800,000 workers (18 percent of the labor force). Honduran authorities report economic destruction as high as $10 billion from the storms. The storms’ effects were particularly damaging to the agriculture and tourism industries, both crucial for millions of Hondurans. NGOs, development banks and Honduran officials are working to reactivate the economy via cash injections and technical assistance for small business and farms, rehabilitation of key infrastructure, and improving climate change resiliency.

The Government of Honduras (GOH) implements a variety of measures to attract investment and facilitate trade.  Trade policy is overseen by the National Trade Committee, chaired by the Minister of Economic Development.  Honduras is a ratifying country of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, which contains provisions for expediting the movement, release, and clearance of goods, and sets out measures for effective cooperation on customs compliance and trade facilitation.  Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador operate a trilateral customs union to foster and increase efficient cross-border trade, but implementation remains inconsistent.  In June 2020, Honduras switched to digitized import permits for agricultural products, reducing costs and dispatch times dramatically. Also in 2020, Honduras and Guatemala launched an online pre-arrival screening protocol to reduce border times and transit costs for goods. Many processes, including applications for permitting and licensing businesses are now available online as part of Honduras’ Sin Filas (no lines) initiative.

Many of the approximately 200 U.S. companies that operate in Honduras take advantage of the commercial framework established by the Central American and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).  Through its participation in CAFTA-DR, Honduras has enhanced U.S. export opportunities and diversified the composition of bilateral trade.  Substantial intra-industry trade now occurs in textiles and electrical machinery, alongside continued trade in traditional Honduran exports such as coffee and bananas.  In addition to liberalizing trade in goods and services, CAFTA-DR includes important requirements relating to investment, customs administration and trade facilitation, technical barriers to trade, government procurement, telecommunications, electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, transparency, and labor and environmental protection.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 157 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 133 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 103 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 $1,281 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita (USD) 2019 $2,390 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The GOH is open to foreign investment, and low labor costs, proximity to the U.S. market, and the large Caribbean port of Puerto Cortes can make Honduras attractive to investors.

The legal framework for investment includes the Honduran constitution, the investment chapter of CAFTA-DR (which takes precedence over most domestic law), and the 2011 Law for the Promotion and Protection of Investments. The Honduran constitution requires all foreign investment to complement, but not substitute for, national investment. Honduras’ legal obligations guarantee national treatment and most favored nation treatment for U.S. investments in most sectors of the Honduran economy and include enhanced benefits in the areas of insurance and arbitration for domestic and foreign investors. CAFTA-DR has equal status with the constitution in most sectors of the Honduran economy.

Critics complain that lack of clarity and overlapping responsibilities among the multiple entities charged with attracting increased foreign direct investment undermine the government’s ability to effectively promote Honduras as a profitable destination for foreign capital. The National Investment Council, the Ministry of Investment Promotion, and the Ministry of Economic Development all have equities in attracting foreign investment and an ambitious job creation mandate.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Honduras’ Investment Law does not limit foreign ownership of businesses, except for those specifically reserved for Honduran investors, including small firms with capital less than $6,300 and the domestic air transportation industry. For all investments, at least 90 percent of companies’ labor forces must be Honduran, and companies must pay at least 85 percent of their payrolls to Hondurans. Majority ownership by Honduran citizens is required for companies in the commercial fishing sector, forestry, local transportation, radio, television, or benefiting from the Agrarian Reform Law. There is no screening or approval process specific to foreign direct investments in Honduras. Foreign investors are subject to the same requirements for environmental and other regulatory approvals as domestic investors.

According to the law, investors can establish, acquire, and dispose of enterprises at market prices under freely negotiated conditions without government intervention, but some foreign business operators report difficulty closing businesses. Private enterprises fairly compete with public enterprises on market access, credit, and other business operations. Foreign investors have the right to own property, subject to certain restrictions established by the Honduran constitution and several laws relating to property rights. Investors may acquire, profit, use, and dispose of property ownership with the exception of land within 40 kilometers of international borders and shorelines. Honduran law does permit, however, foreign individuals to purchase properties close to shorelines in designated “tourism zones.”

Other Investment Policy Reviews

In 2016, the World Trade Organization conducted a Trade Policy review of Honduras: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp436_e.htm .

Business Facilitation

The Honduran government has worked to simplify administrative procedures for establishing a company in recent years, including by offering many processes online. GOH officials are pressing for, and have made good progress in, the digitalization of business, import, permitting and licensing, and taxation processes to increase efficiency and transparency, but procedural red tape to obtain government approval for investment activities remains common, especially at the local level. Honduras’ business registration information portal ( https://honduras.eregulations.org/ ) provides clear step-by-step information on registering a business, including fees, agencies, and required documents.

Honduras ratified the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) in July 2016, agreeing to expedite the movement, release, and clearance of goods, including goods in transit. The TFA also sets out measures for effective cooperation between customs and other appropriate authorities on trade facilitation and customs compliance issues. According to the WTO/TFA database, Honduras’ current rate of implementation of TFA Category A notification commitments stands at 59.2 percent.

During the past year the GOH moved 38 of its ministries and agencies into the newly finished Centro Civico government complex, where it hopes to achieve efficiencies in business facilitation and other processes. In addition to moving information storage to digital formats across the government, the GOH plans to streamline public services though use of single windows for multiple services at the new center.

Outward Investment

Honduras does not promote or incentivize outward investment.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

A Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) between the United States and Honduras entered into force in 2001. The U.S.-Honduras Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Consular Rights (1928) provides for Most Favored Nation treatment for investors of either country. The United States and Honduras also signed an agreement for the guarantee of private investments in 1955 and an agreement on investment guarantees in 1966. CAFTA-DR supersedes most provisions of these agreements. Honduras and the United States signed a Tax Information Exchange Agreement in 1990. In 2014, Honduras and the United States signed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

Provisions for investment are included in free trade agreements between Honduras and the United States, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Taiwan, South Korea, and the European Union. These agreements supersede many of the provisions of Honduras’ separate Bilateral Investment Treaties with these countries. Honduras also has separate Bilateral Investment Treaties with the Republic of Korea and with Switzerland.

9. Corruption

Despite international pressure, President Hernandez allowed the four-year mandate of the OAS Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) to expire in January 2020.  MACCIH began work in 2015 following widespread anti-corruption protests in the wake of a scandal involving Honduras’ social security fund. During its tenure, MACCIH worked with the Public Ministry to bring cases against current and former public officials and to advance justice reform, including by presenting draft legislation for a Law of Effective Collaboration (plea-bargaining law) which remains stalled in Congress.  MACCIH and the Public Ministry created a special anti-corruption unit (UFECIC) to pursue large-scale corruption cases which continues to exist despite the end of MACCIH’s mandate. Its replacement, UFERCO, operates within the Public Ministry with fewer resources and personnel.

U.S. businesses and citizens report corruption in the public sector and the judiciary is a significant constraint to investment in Honduras.  Historically, corruption has been pervasive in government procurement, issuance of government permits, customs, real estate transactions (particularly land title transfers), performance requirements, and the regulatory system.  Civil society groups are critical of recent legislation granting qualified immunity to government officials and a law that gives the highly politicized government audit agency a first look at corruption cases.  In 2018, Congress passed a revision of the 1984 penal code that lowered penalties for some corruption offenses. The new code went into effect in June 2020 and was retroactively applied to several high-profile corruption cases resulting in a spate of dismissals and retrials.  Since 2012, the Honduran government has signed agreements with Transparency International, the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative, and the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative.  In late 2020, the GOH created a new Ministry of Transparency to act as the government’s lead institution in coordinating and implementing efforts to promote transparency and integrity and prevent government corruption.

Honduras’s Rankings on Key Corruption Indicators:

Measure Year Index/Ranking
TI Corruption Index 2020 24/100, 157 of 180
World Bank Doing Business May 2020 133/190
MCC Government Effectiveness FY 2021 -0.19 (32 percent)
MCC Rule of Law FY 2021 -0.59 (7 percent)
MCC Control of Corruption FY 2021 -0.29 (18 percent)

The United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) deems it unlawful for a U.S. person, and certain foreign issuers of securities to make corrupt payments to foreign public officials for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business for directing business to any person. The FCPA also applies to foreign firms and persons who take any act in furtherance of such a corrupt payment while in the United States. For more information, see the FCPA Lay-Person’s Guide: http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/ .

Honduras ratified the UN Anticorruption Convention, in December 2005. The UN Convention requires countries to establish criminal penalties for a wide range of acts of corruption. The UN Convention covers a broad range of issues from basic forms of corruption such as bribery and solicitation, embezzlement, trading in influence, and the concealment and laundering of the proceeds of corruption. The UN Convention contains transnational business bribery provisions that are functionally similar to those in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Anti-Bribery Convention.

Honduras ratified the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (OAS Convention) in1998. The OAS Convention establishes a set of preventive measures against corruption; provides for the criminalization of certain acts of corruption, including transnational bribery and illicit enrichment; and contains a series of provisions to strengthen the cooperation between its states’ parties in areas such as mutual legal assistance and technical cooperation.

Resources to Report Corruption

Companies that face corruption-related challenges in Honduras may contact the following organizations to request assistance.

Public Ministry
Eva Nazar
Coordinator for External Cooperation
cooperacionexterna.mp@gmail.com 

The Public Ministry is the Honduran government agency responsible for criminal prosecutions, including corruption cases.

Association for a More Just Society (ASJ)
Yahayra Yohana Velasquez Duce
Director of Transparency
Residencial El Trapiche, 2da etapa Bloque B, Casa #25
+504-2235-2291
info@asjhonduras.com 

ASJ is a nongovernmental Honduran organization that works to reduce corruption and increase transparency. It is an affiliate of Transparency International.

National Anti-Corruption Council (CNA)
Alejandra Ferrera
Executive Board Assistant
Colonia San Carlos, calle Republica de Mexico
504-2221-1181
aferrera@cna.hn 

CNA is a Honduran civil society organization comprised of Honduran business groups, labor groups, religious organizations, and human rights groups.

U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Attention: Economic Section
Avenida La Paz
Tegucigalpa M.D.C., Honduras
Telephone Numbers: (504) 2236-9320, 2238-5114
Fax Number: (504) 2236-9037

Companies can also report corruption through the Department of Commerce Trade Compliance Center Report a Trade Barrier website: http://tcc.export.gov/Report_a_Barrier/index.asp .

10. Political and Security Environment

Crime and violence rates remain high and add cost and constraint to investments. Demonstrations occur regularly in Honduras and political uncertainty poses a challenge to ongoing stability. Tensions could increase significantly in advance of the November 2021 presidential and general elections.

U.S. citizens should be aware that large public gatherings might become unruly or violent quickly. For more information, consult the Department of State’s latest travel warning: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Honduras.html.

Although violent crime remains a persistent problem, Honduras has successfully reduced homicides to less than 40 per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest in a decade.  Cases of violence, extortion, and kidnapping are still relatively common, particularly in urban areas where gang presence is more pervasive.  Drug traffickers continue to use Honduras as a transit point for cocaine and other narcotics en route to the United States and Europe, which fuels local turf battles in some areas and injects illicit funds into judicial proceedings and local governance structures to distort justice.  The business community historically had been a target for ransom kidnappings, but the number of such kidnappings dropped from 92 in 2013 to 13 in 2020, primarily through the establishment of the USG-supported Honduran National Police National Anti-Kidnapping Unit. Although violent crime rates are trending downward, there is a neutral to upward trend in corruption and white-collar crime, including money laundering, that negatively affects economic prosperity and stability for the business community.

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