While you watch Brazil continue its wild ride, struggling to shake off a currency meltdown and emerge from recession, remember this number: 164 million people.
In all the Americas, Brazil's population is second only to the United States. Only about 95 million Brazilians have graduated to the consumer class. A good chunk of them rose automatically — poor people finally able to buy things after the Cardoso administration quenched the country's fiery inflation.
And so this vibrant country has tremendous room to grow. When Brazil gets its act together, and stability returns, watch out.
Some more numbers: Brazilians consume just 47 pounds of plastics per capita each year, a tiny fraction of the U.S. level of 300 pounds-plus. Plastics consumption rates can only increase as people buy more soft drinks, eat more packaged foods and buy refrigerators and cars.
Of course, numbers mean different things to different people. A social activist would point out that millions are still mired in poverty, that industrialization breeds pollution. Through capitalistic eyes, Brazil presents one of the largest developing markets in the world.
Brazil dominates the four-nation Mercosul free trade zone; its influence reaches all of South America. Any company doing business in Latin America — including plastics manufacturers supplying the region's bustling automotive, appliance and electronics industries — has to understand Brazil.
Understand Brazil. That's easier said than done. The only way is to go there. On my second trip to Brazil, to cover the Brasilplast show last month, I found that Brazil remains a fascinating, exotic place. Dazzling green rain forests. Rugged mountains. A smell like burning petroleum lingers in jam-packed Sao Paulo. High-rise apartments and world-class restaurants. Desolate slums. Smoke rising from a burning trash pile on the outskirts of town.
Brazil has a stable democracy, but it also suffers from stubborn illiteracy and a bloated, sometimes corrupt government.
In Sao Paulo last month, business leaders at the Brasilplast were optimistic, long term. How could you not be, given Brazil's size? For the short term, maybe the next six months, most were saying wait and see.
Already, it seems like Brazil may be turning the corner. Projections issued during Brasilplast said Brazil's gross national product was expected to shrink this year by 3.5 to 4 percent. A month later, the outlook was brighter. In an April 2 Wall Street Journal story, Brazil's new central bank President Arminio Fraga said he thinks the recession could end in the second half of this year. The currency has strengthened after the mid-January devaluation.
Brazil's government faces daunting challenges: gradually rolling back interest rates that now top 40 percent, while avoiding a return to inflation, and at the same time slashing government spending.
An impossible task? Maybe. But Brazilians are quick on their feet. They've lived through military rule, 1,000 percent inflation and a revolving door of currencies. Those stresses would rip the United States apart.
Brazil survived. Right now, the country needs real government reform and a steady hand at the central bank. Most of all, Brazil could simply use a chance to catch its breath.
Senior reporter Bill Bregar covered Brasilplast'99, March 8-13 in Sao Paulo.