RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's two biggest cities have bowed to popular demands by revoking bus fare increases that sparked the nation's biggest street protests in almost two decades.
Authorities in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro said they were scrapping increases for public transportation, even as they struggle under strained budgets to pay for the reductions. Starting Monday, bus, subway and train tickets in Sao Paulo will cost 3 reais ($1.35) -- the same level they were before a 20 centavo, or 7 percent, increase took effect this month.
Protesters who paralyzed Brazil's biggest cities for much of the past two weeks had vowed to remain on the streets until officials lowered fares. Still, in capitulating to those demands, it is unclear whether authorities will be able to quell a movement that has since mushroomed into a catch-all for Brazilians' discontent with everything from 6.5 percent inflation and corruption to the quality of public education.
"We don't expect people to just quit protesting," Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said Wednesday while announcing the fare cuts. "People are protesting for more than just bus fares, and that's their right. We're just listening to what they're saying, and this is a way to show it."
The nation's attention Wednesday was on Fortaleza, in the country's northeast, where the growing movement stole the spotlight from the nation's love of soccer. There, police battled an estimated 25,000 demonstrators gathered outside a stadium, where the national team was hosting Mexico, to protest excessive spending on sports facilities ahead of next year's FIFA World Cup. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to repel the crowd, some of whom responded by throwing stones.
Inside the arena, fans held up signs denouncing corruption and bearing what's become the student-led movement's rallying cry: "The giant has awakened," a reference to Brazil's national anthem. Soccer legend Pele, in an online video, called on Brazilians to "forget all this confusion that's happening in Brazil" and refrain from booing the national squad.
Amid the unrest, Joseph Blatter, head of soccer's governing body, left Brazil, surprising officials who had expected him to remain for the duration of the two-week Confederations Cup, a warm-up to next year's tournament. FIFA said Mr. Blatter was traveling to Turkey to attend the Under-20 World Cup, and will return to Brazil Wednesday for the semifinals.
President Dilma Rousseff, who was jeered Saturday at a packed stadium, has been trying to get ahead of the protests, which reached a peak Monday, when more than 200,000 people marched in 12 cities.
The movement's surprise emergence on the Internet comes as Brazil is struggling to recover from its second-worst economic performance in 13 years. Latin America's biggest economy is forecast to grow 2.49 percent this year after expanding 0.9 percent in 2012. Since the start of protests, several state capitals also have reduced bus fares.