Zelaya was born the oldest of four children in Juticalpa, Olancho. He attended Niño Jesús de Praga y Luis Landa elementary school and the Instituto Salesiano San Miguel. He studied civil engineering in The National University of Honduras (UNAH), but left after four years with 11 courses completed, in order to engage fully in the agri-forestry business sector . Two of his brothers remain alive: one is Carlos Armando and the other is Marco Antonio. Zelaya’s mother, Ortensia Rosales de Zelaya, has been described as his best campaigner. He has engaged in various business activities, specifically timber and cattle, which were handed down to him by his late father. He is now a landowner in the department of Olancho. His family first lived in Copán, then they moved east to Olancho.
In 1987, Zelaya became manager of the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP), as well as the National Association of Wood Processing Enterprises. The COHEP occupies a particularly important role in Honduran politics, as the Constitution delineates that the organization elects 1 of the 7 members of the Nominating Board that proposes members of the Supreme Court of Honduras.
He joined the Liberal Party of Honduras (Partido Liberal de Honduras, PLH) in 1970 and became active a decade later. He was a deputy in the National Congress three consecutive times between 1985 and 1998. He held many positions within the PLH and was Minister for Investment in charge of the Honduran Social Investment Fund (FHIS) in a previous PLH government. During the government of Carlos Roberto Flores Zelaya introduced an Open counties programme to decentralize decision making and return power to the local communities. He used both the official division according to Municipality and another method which categorised people according to their indigenous or traditional communities, with said categorisation creating 297 different groups and he planned to revive this scheme during his presidency.
In the 2005 presidential primaries, his faction was called Movimiento Esperanza Liberal (MEL). He received 52% of the 289,300 Liberal votes, to 17% for Jaime Rosenthal Oliva and 12% for Gabriela Núñez, the candidate of the Nueva Mayoría faction. During the election campaign Zelaya promised to double police numbers from 9,000 to 18,000. He also promised to initiate a programme of re-education amongst the Mara Salvatrucha gangs.
General opinions about his presidency were negative. An Angus Reid survey in October, 2008 showed a 25% approval rating.
Political opponents have expressed their opposition to both his foreign policy, particularly his alliance with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, friendship with Cuba’s Raúl Castro and his adhering Honduras to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, as well as for his periodic criticism of the United States, and periodic confrontations with the business sector.
On February 22, 2008, Zelaya called on the United States to legalize drugs, in order, he said, to prevent the majority of violent murders occurring in Honduras. Cocaine smugglers have routinely used Honduras as a transit point between Colombia and the US. Honduras, with a population of 7 million, suffers an average of 8 murders a day, an estimated 70% of which result from the international drug trade, arms traffic, and the trade in people. He also said that Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico face the same problem.
On July 22, 2008, Zelaya revealed that he was seeking to incorporate the country into the ALBA. In fact, he said that the country had been “observer member” “four or more months”.
The Economist gave Zelaya mixed reviews for his first year in office, saying that “Despite success in fulfilling some of his campaign promises […] Zelaya’s lack of a coherent programme has limited the government’s ability to address Honduras’s long-standing problems,” and that “introducing far-reaching reforms will be difficult” in the face of vigorous opposition and “simmering social tensions.” At the time of his ouster, the newsmagazine said “Mr Zelaya’s presidency has been marked by a rise in crime, corruption scandals and economic populism”.
In 2008, Zelaya’s popular approval dropped amid the 2007–2008 world food price crisis and worsening drug-related violence that gave Honduras one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.