With a million people demonstrating in the streets of cities throughout Brazil, everyone's scrambling to understand how a 20-cent bus fare hike turned into a social revolt.
Government officials are the most surprised. President Dilma Rousseff hastily cancelled a long-planned trip to Japan and has called an emergency meeting of her cabinet. Her first response was to herald the protests as a sign of participatory democracy. Now that response seems to be evolving as she recognizes the significance of the unexpected grassroots movement.
Taking a harder line on Saturday she stated, "We will not live with a violence that shames Brazil; with balance and calmness -- but also with firmness -- we will guarantee rights and liberty." At stake for the government are two things that it cares deeply about: the millions in foreign revenue that will supposedly pour in during mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics, and the image of Brazil as a modern, upcoming leader in a multipolar world.
No one expected the prairie-fire spread of the protests over the past few weeks. It's been a wake-up call for leaders in Brazil's federal government and for local governments in the major cities, including for members of the ruling Labor Party (PT). But government officials are scratching their head over what exactly it is they are waking up to.
The Free Fare Movement started the ball rolling on June 7, when it called the demonstrations to protests the fare hikes. This is nothing new -- protesting fare hikes and demanding free and quality public transportation is what the movement does.
Even a leader of the movement, Caio Martins, is not quite sure why this year's protest caught on like it did. In an interview with Brazil de Fato, he mused that something had changed in people's aspirations. "First, because it caught the people's imagination."
He added, "To talk about the fare hikes is to talk about the situation in the cities, and transportation is an essential element."
What's the situation in the cities that led people into the streets? Brazil has among the most expensive public transportation systems in the world, as well as being aggravatingly inefficient. Privatized years ago, the buses get stuck in traffic and take up inordinate amounts of people's time and money.
Demonstrations started in Sao Paulo, the financial center of the country. There the contrast between the majority of the population and the elite shows in their way of getting around. The rich fly in private helicopters that buzz through the airways over the congested streets below.
That sense of being stuck below, with the wealthy few above, has played a huge role in igniting protests. The PT government, beginning with former President Lula da Silva, initiated social programs that greatly reduced poverty and hunger throughout the nation. But Brazil's strict adherence to neoliberal growth places a priority on maintaining the privileges of the wealthy, and widely publicized corruption scandals have created an image of at least part of the political elite partaking of those privileges -- all at the expense of the majority. Inequality continues to plague Brazil, and recent increases in the cost of living have gouged the middle class.
A second image that has sparked indignation also reflects the government's pandering to a privileged few. Brazil's preparations for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 have syphoned away billions of dollars of public funds. The country's new mega-stadiums, airports, and hotels will not be shared by the masses of the soccer-loving public. They will accommodate an international elite that can afford to pay the high ticket prices for luxury seats. Not only do the poor receive little benefit from this expenditure, but the infrastructure projects have actually led to the displacement of poor families, especially around the stadiums.
Signs at protests bear messages like, "As you watch the ball roll, we need schools and hospitals." The arrogance of FIFA -- the international football federation -- has also kindled popular anger. The in-your-face inequality represented by the corrupt and wealthy soccer federation landing like a ton of bricks in poor Brazilian slums provoked signs like, "We want schools and health care of the same quality that the FIFA bosses have," and "The World Cup for whom?" In Rio, the organization Rio da Paz scattered the beaches with soccer balls marked with crosses.
FIFA head Joseph Blatter attempted to wash his hands of the conflict and instead inflamed it, stating to Brazil's Globo TV, "Brazil asked to host the World Cup. We did not impose the World Cup on Brazil. They knew that to host a good World Cup they would naturally have to build stadiums."
The promise that the massive public investment in infrastructure would serve the people is proving bankrupt, and instead the poor are paying a heavy price for international sporting events for the elite. FIFA has imposed its own rules to monopolize sales and income related to the games, in some cases even requiring existing Brazilian laws to be rewritten.
The demonstrations also reflect indignation at the military police's heavy-handed response. Repression has been widespread. The military police are a sore point for many Brazilians, a remnant of the dictatorship, trained in putting down popular uprisings and enforcing other mechanisms of social control. Although small groups of demonstrators have turned violent, with acts of vandalism reported in some places, the police's extensive use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and beatings have enraged the public.
Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of the protests is the highly energized presence of youth. While this is relatively common in other Latin American nations, especially in the past few years, it's new in Brazil. Brazilian youth now join other young people throughout the world who feel hemmed into a bleak future and are ready to do something about it.
As protests have progressed, more people from the favelas have joined the primarily middle-class demonstrations. Overall, it has become a broad-based mix of interests and people, with polls showing that the majority of Brazilians support the protests.
The city governments rescinded the fare hikes in an attempt to quell protests, but the demonstrations continued over the weekend, especially in Salvador de Bahia and Belo Horizonte. Broader demands to remove public transportation from the private sector, to fund schools and hospitals, and against the FIFA and corruption in general, among other grievances, keep people in the streets.
The movement originally under the umbrella of the Free Fare Movement is so broad and amorphous that there isn't a formal petition. The protests now are a public space to express discontent with a society that has seen its economy and the aspirations of its population grow, while generating a sense that the majority is not seeing the benefits it's entitled to. The movement's lack of leadership and coordination is seen by some as a risk factor and by others as an encouraging sign of citizens acting for a better society.
Even as protesters launched offensives on government buildings in Brasilia, the demonstrations are not directed at specific parties or politicians, nor is it likely they will be appeased by solutions brokered by a political elite.
As one of the signs confiscated near the Fonte Nova Stadium as the Brazilian team faced off with the Italians -- in normal times, a ritual of nationalist pride -- said: "We're in the street to change Brazil." No more, no less.
This commentary originally appeared at Foreign Policy In Focus.