WAIKAPU - One country that missed out on the past year and a half of financial and economic crisis was Brazil. Its economy expanded by 10 percent in the first quarter of 2010.
JJ Elkin, who used to operate 505 Front St., is so high on Brazil that he has purchased a mile and a half of pristine ocean beach there, and last week he invited the honorary consul for Brazil in Hawaii, Eric Crispin, to explain the country to members of the Harvard Club at King Kamehameha Golf Club.
Sao Paulo, South America's biggest city, with 11 million people, is as far south of the equator as Maui is north, Crispin said, so Mauians would be familiar with the fruits and the climate. Brazilians wear slippers, which they call Hawaiian sandals, and they leave them at the door.
Brazil has a per capita gross domestic product of around $7,500, much lower than Hawaii's. But it has been advancing fast.
Doubled since 2004, in fact. Of the four BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies that are supposed to be poised to enter the top tier, Brazil is in most respects the furthest along, said Crispin. Much of the credit go to its president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a man with only four years of formal schooling who conceived that education and helping the bottom quarter of the population was the key to economic success.
Poking wry fun at the two dozen Harvards in the room, Crispin noted that Brazil has traditionally had a small elite and huge underclass. Again and again, Brazil elected leaders from the local equivalent of the Ivy League, but not much happened. The change, he said, did not begin with Lula, but it accelerated with him, and today he enjoys 80 percent approval ratings.
By directing government support to the poorest quarter of the population, Crispin said, Lula increased their consumption, which helped create a growing internal market, and that in turn helped cushion Brazil from the shocks that drove down the international economy.
It also helped that Brazilians avoided the subprime real estate and securities derivatives that poisoned Wall Street.
As a result, Brazilians now enjoy incomes three times of those in China, though still unevenly distributed.
Growth is faster than in India or China, and the reis, the currency, has been rising fast against the dollar.
It is a leading exporter of oil, steel, civilian aircraft and chemicals to the United States, and a large importer of computers, aircraft parts and engines, whole aircraft and chemicals.
The biggest change for Brazil has been the transition to civilian and democratic government. The country ranks high, though not at the very top, for political freedom and in the middle of the pack for things like press freedom.
Crispin, who is director of strategic planning for the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii, experienced that change firsthand.
Half-Brazilian and half-American, he left the country at age 12 and became a naturalized American citizen. As a young man he returned to Brazil for a visit, toward the tail end of the rule of the army, and discovered that the Brazilian government did not recognize his singular American citizenship.
As far as they were concerned, he was a Brazilian who had not served his military service, so he was conscripted into the army for three years.
Besides the high morale from a buoyant economy, Brazilians are excited about hosting the World Cup of soccer in 2014. Crispin said, "Imagine 20 Super Bowls." The country has to build many modern stadiums to handle the games and the crowds, and that in itself is providing a significant stimulus.
Elkin said, "Brazilians have always said their country is the land of the future and always will be, but I really do feel that now is different."
Crispin said that Brazilians are entrepreneurial, and even Lula, who was feared by the monied classes for his reputed socialism, made putting poor children in school a business.
Among poor people, the temptation to put children to work early is strong. To counter that, Lula pays parents to send their children to school.
"They're forcing the kids to be educated."
The government leased waste land outside cities for a dollar for community gardens. The produce is paid to street urchins, a pound of food for a pound of trash, which cleaned up the streets and improved the nutrition of the poor.
"The real story is the internal story," said Crispin. Brazilians are doing it their own way.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com.