Bonilla, Policarpo (1858–1926)

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Bonilla, Policarpo (1858–1926)

Policarpo Bonilla (b. 17 March 1858; d. 11 September 1926), president of Honduras, 1894–1899. Bonilla emerged as the Liberal Party's heir apparent during Céleo Arias's failed bid for the presidency in 1887. Upon Arias's death in 1890, the Liberals chose Bonilla to be their candidate against the Progressive Party's nominee, Ponciano Leiva, in the 1891 elections. The Progressives stole the election, then harried the opposition Liberals into exile. From his Nicaraguan asylum, don Policarpo invaded Honduras, unleashing that country's bloodiest civil war. Bonilla's forces, amply supported by Nicaraguan strongman José Santos Zelaya, managed to overthrow the government after more than two years' struggle.

As diligent in office as he had been intransigent in the field, Bonilla rewrote the nation's constitution in 1894 to reflect his brand of doctrinaire liberalism, established in it the preeminence of the executive branch, and revamped public administration at every level. He firmly believed that disciplined political parties competing in honest electoral contests would cure much of what ailed Honduras, but he made little headway in persuading his fellow Hondurans to accept this Anglo panacea. Although mildly xenophobic (his legal practice exposed him to the seamy side of international capitalism), Bonilla continued his predecessors' efforts to foster development through mining and banana export, and he tried unsuccessfully to refund his country's enormous foreign debt.

A lifelong Unionist, Bonilla took the lead in a misguided attempt to revive the Republic of Central America shortly before leaving office in 1899. Hoping to return to law or retail trade after his term in office, he instead spent much of his remaining years in jail, in exile, or abroad on diplomatic missions. He represented Honduras at Versailles after World War I, courageously speaking against trying German leaders as war criminals and challenging Woodrow Wilson to redefine the Monroe Doctrine to fit League of Nations principles. He ran for president in 1923 but lost. Three years later he died in New Orleans.

See alsoCentral America; Honduras.


Aro Sanso (pseud., Ismael Mejía Deras), Policarpo Bonilla: Algunos apuntes biográficos (1936).

William S. Stokes, Honduras: An Area Study in Government (1950).

Lucas Paredes, Drama político de Honduras (1958), chaps. 13-20.

Charles Abbey Brand, The Background of Capitalistic Underdevelopment: Honduras to 1913 (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1972).

Richard L. Millett, "Historical Setting," in Honduras: A Country Study, edited by James D. Rudolph (2d ed., 1984).

Kenneth V. Finney, In Quest of El Dorado: Precious Metal Mining and the Modernization of Honduras, 1880–1900 (1987), pp. 70-75.

Additional Bibliography

Zelaya, Gustavo. El legado de la Reforma Liberal. Tegucigalpa: Editorial Guaymuras, 1996.

                                       Kenneth V. Finney