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Colombians Don’t Just Want a New Government — They Want an End to Neoliberalism

Forrest Hylton

For weeks, Colombians have remained in the streets challenging their nation’s violent social and economic model.

Protesters are not just calling for police reform, they are calling for the end to an unequal system in Colombia that can only be upheld at gunpoint. (LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

As Colombia enters its third week of national strikes, demonstrators show no sign of leaving the streets. Beginning on April 28, in a day of protest against a regressive tax reform, the strike wave has since grown in size and spread throughout the country as strikers form a common front against the administration of right-wing president Iván Duque and the political machine of former president Álvaro Uribe.

International headlines have focused on the bloody repression of protesters by Colombia’s police and armed forces. The New York Times, for example, reports that the police once engaged in the war against “left-wing guerrillas and paramilitaries” are now turning their substantial firepower against civilians.

The international media, however, has largely forgotten that the Colombian state has been at war with the Left, worker and peasant organizations, and social movements for decades. Ever since the early 2000s, when counterinsurgent warfare became a centerpiece of Uribe’s administration, state-led terrorism has been the method of choice for managing Colombia’s growing inequality and the social disintegration brought on by neoliberalism.

In that same sense, protesters are not just calling for police reform, they are calling for the end to an unequal system in Colombia that can only be upheld at gunpoint.

Forrest Hylton, a professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Medellín and columnist with the London Review of Books, has been writing and reporting on Colombian politics for more than 25 years. He spoke with Jacobin contributing editor Nicolas Allen about the strikers’ demands, the eroding legitimacy of uribismo, and about the broader implications the protests might hold for Colombian politics and for the return of the Colombian left.


NA

We’re now in the third week of general strikes in Colombia. Can you start by giving us a sense of what set off the first national action on April 28 and what has kept protesters in the street since then?

Everything started with the introduction of a regressive tax package by former minister of finance Alberto Carrasquilla, which would have added a 19 percent tax on a whole range of goods and services that are basic to people’s everyday needs and subsistence: water, electricity, natural gas, gasoline, and basic staples like flour, grains, pasta, salt, milk, and coffee. This regressive tax package came on the heels of a similar proposal in 2019, which also triggered a nationwide general strike. In 2019, the reform gave corporations and the banking sector a whole series of tax breaks and exemptions, which is one reason for the fiscal deficit.

The key difference between the two general strikes is the pandemic. Statistics from Colombia’s national statistical agency suggest that poverty is up 7 percent over the last year, and it’s probably safe to say that it’s considerably higher than that. Official statistics say that 42.5 percent of the population of Colombia is living in poverty — again, the figure is probably considerably higher. And somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of Colombians are working in the informal sector.

Colombia has had one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, with no universal basic income provisions implemented. So it was really just kind of a free fall for the bottom half of the population. But it’s important to also emphasize how precarious the situation is for the Colombian middle class, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. For many, waged employment will dry up. In terms of cases and deaths per capita from COVID-19, Colombia ranks number eleven and number ten in the world, respectively. The Colombian health care system is currently collapsing in Bogotá, and there’s been nothing but corruption and mismanagement of the pandemic nationwide.

In that context, the regressive tax package would literally make it impossible for more than half of the population to continue surviving as they are right now, and close to impossible for another quarter. So that’s what triggered this massive uprising starting on April 28, and why there has been nationwide mobilization with mass marches in all the major cities and rural areas of Colombia.

This is a national insurrection of those who have been dispossessed by Colombia’s particularly vicious mix of neoliberalism and counterinsurgency. The class-generation most adversely affected by the pandemic and the status quo — the young, informal proletariat of the urban peripheries — is the leading edge and backbone of these protests, and has borne the brunt of police repression and militarization. Young people are on the front lines, and mothers and grandmothers are taking care of them (i.e., feeding and sheltering them).

This is the single largest class-generation in the country, and as yet, it has no formal political representation. That’s the main reason why the National Strike Committee — like Senator Gustavo Petro, who won 42 percent of the vote in 2018 — is only so representative. This takes us back to the great Civic Strike of 1977, but on a much larger scale. And instead of the guerrillas being on the rise, as they were then, they are almost entirely absent/eclipsed. Same goes for the Colombian military and its Siamese twin, paramilitary forces. Hence the potential emergence of an urban left, for the first time in Colombian history.

NA

President Iván Duque has since watered down some of the more obviously regressive aspects of the tax reform bill. And yet the protests continue, and as they do we’re starting to see a variety of demands emerge, beyond the withdrawal of the tax reform. What are some of those demands and who are the groups involved in the protests?

The tax reform was repealed almost immediately after protests began because they were so much larger than the government had expected or was prepared for. But, despite the resignation of the finance minister and the repeal of the tax package, protests have actually increased rather than decreased. And that’s in part because the government also wants to introduce health and pension reforms that would further hit the middle class and the informal proletariat.

Police officers arrest a demonstrator during a protest against the government in Cali, Colombia, on May 10, 2021. ( LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)

It might be worth mentioning that only about 4.5 percent of working Colombians belong to unions. So even if it was the major trade-union centrals and the teachers’ union that called the strike, at this point, the National Strike Committee — which is currently sitting down to dialogue with the government — has limited reach in terms of what’s actually going on in the streets.

In the streets you have a wide variety of sectors mobilized, both in a social and a geographical sense, and there is a great diversity of demands, as well as widespread decentralization. Just about everybody who belongs to any kind of organization is mobilized, and huge numbers of young people who do not belong to any organization are also in the streets. The trucker strike has been really important in terms of blocking the flow of goods into and out of the cities and towns. The student movement probably has the biggest numbers of any organized movement. And that’s in part because neoliberal reform measures have commodified higher education, indebting a huge number of students in the process, and multiplying the numbers of those who go to university. The other thing that most marchers are demanding is what could be called a peace budget: a movement away from investment in the armed forces and the police and the kind of hyper-militarized counterinsurgency state that Colombia has long maintained with US support.

In addition to the sectors I named, there is of course the Indigenous movement, particularly from Cauca and the Southwest, which has been incredibly important as they’ve mobilized from their homelands to the city of Cali. In at least the past fifteen years or so, the movement in Cauca, though relatively small, has often been a sort of detonator for national popular movements. And that would also include the Afro-Colombian movement, which is largely concentrated on the Pacific coast, and whose demands concern fishing, land rights, mining, ecology, peace, and the return of stolen lands.

Feminist movements — which were deeply involved in the broad-based peace movement in the previous administration — have been integral to the emergence of a mass urban, progressive politics in Colombia in recent times. Now, the feminist movements, LGBTQ, and most progressive sectors (like the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian minorities) voted for Gustavo Petro in 2018, where he won 42 percent of the vote — far beyond anything that any left candidate in Colombia has ever achieved. That has led his critics to claim that Petro is somehow leading these protests or that protesters are following his lead — even though he’s mostly stood to the side as much as he can, and has called on protesters to lift blockades.

In other words, the protests are not coming from the organized, political left. The retired people’s associations have been very active, as have high school students, health care workers, urban neighborhood associations, and more. Neighborhood organizations are especially helping to make this resistance highly decentralized by holding nightly meetings, assemblies, and protests in the neighborhoods themselves. Finally, the cultural sector — artists, musicians, actors, comedians, academics — is heavily involved. The sheer youthful creativity of the protests has been one of their most remarkable features.

The National Strike Committee has eighteen demands. It would be hard to say how representative they are of the movements as a whole, or for that matter how much activists on the ground — the rank and file, if you will — accept the Committee’s negotiating role as legitimate. And within each movement, there are also tensions between leadership and rank and file.

In any case, protesters see the peace accords that were signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels implemented. They want an end to systemic corruption; for the militarized riot police to be completely disbanded; for the government to comply with the accords that it signed with students in 2019; a new type of tax reform that would be progressive rather than regressive; public investment in health care (Colombia’s health care system is entirely privatized on the US model); an end to the assassination of movement leaders, which until now has been taking place almost exclusively in the countryside. Since the signing of the peace accords at the end of 2016, over one thousand Colombian social movement leaders have been assassinated.

Another demand is to enforce gender equality. Annual poverty among women is up by 20 percent since the pandemic hit, and of course women are discriminated against in terms of salary and wages, not to mention all of the unpaid labor that goes with caring for families, as well as violence against women, which they have highlighted in the protests, as riot police have molested and raped protesters.

Another central demand is the protection of wildlife and the environment. Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, along with Mexico and Brazil. Brazil takes all the headlines for environmental destruction, but Colombia is not far behind. Related to those environmental points, protesters are demanding that mining and energy companies be regulated, since they essentially operate without constraints and maintain their own set of extraterritorial laws in the zones where they operate.

Protesters are calling for progressive pension reform instead of regressive privatizing measures. They want a more participatory budget, and progressive labor law reform as opposed to the regressive labor law measures that the government is trying to introduce into Congress. Another key demand is the restitution of stolen lands: something like five or six million hectares were stolen from peasants, mostly by paramilitary forces in the name of vanquishing communist guerrillas.

There are many other demands out there, and, like the different groups mobilized, they are quite heterogeneous. But through all the diversity — perhaps even fragmentation — the underlying demand is for the Colombian state to provide a basic commitment to social welfare as outlined in the 1991 constitution. Thus, it would be fair to characterize this as a liberal democratic revolution of would-be citizens against the authoritarian, oligarchic, neoliberal counterinsurgent state and society built up over the past thirty or forty years.

NA

You mentioned the unprecedented participation of the middle class in the protests. We’ve even seen graffiti in well-to-do neighborhoods of Bogotá calling for Duque’s resignation. One gets the sense that the government’s support among the urban middle class is really eroding.

I was involved in the 2019 strike as a as a professor at the country’s leading public university, and I think it’s fair to say that then, as now, we saw a similar kind of outpouring on the part of the urban middle class. Especially in Bogotá, in 2019, in neighborhoods where you wouldn’t have expected it, we saw citizens’ assemblies taking place all over the capital. But it’s much more massive this time in terms of the participation of both the middle class and the informal proletariat.

Part of what makes these protests historic is that it’s now been more than two weeks straight of strike action. The flow of goods and services has been halted to a degree completely unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years.

As in 2019, the fact that the urban middle class is out in such force is really important in terms of media representation. Unlike the informal proletariat, the urban middle class has the means to contest official government narratives claiming that the protests are driven by vandals and narco-trafficking guerrillas. As it has since the nationwide urban uprising in 1948, known misleadingly as the Bogotazo, the government claims it’s one big communist conspiracy.

The Cold War script in Colombia, equating civilian protesters with guerrilla fighters, never changes. But reality itself has changed — and dramatically so. Thanks to the efforts of its younger members, the educated urban middle class in Colombia simply no longer believes in the Cold War narrative that has shaped and continues to shape so much of Colombian politics.

NA

And yet, judging by the repressive measures the government is practicing, it certainly seems they think that this narrative can win out. The kind of terror being implemented — most conspicuously with the revived use of “false positives” — suggests that Duque wants to impose the Cold War narrative by ratcheting up violence and recasting the conflict as part of the war against communism. What are the odds that this will work?

After the signing of the peace accords in 2016, the FARC completely upheld its part of the agreement and the government did not. Everybody in Colombia knows this — it’s become common knowledge that the government has done everything possible to derail the peace accords and that it in some way needs that conflict to continue if it is to justify the repression of nonviolent protest.

During the general strike of 2019, the government tried to stigmatize and criminalize student demonstrators by claiming they were associated with terrorist (i.e., guerrilla) organizations. But that line didn’t work, in part because students were able to successfully contest this narrative in the Colombian media. Popular perception has completely shifted, and the circulation of citizen videos of police brutality — including murder — contributes to that.

In recent years, the government has not unleashed the kind of deadly repression of urban middle-class people and workers of the urban periphery in the way that it regularly has in rural areas. However, especially given the scale of the protests, the government’s operating theory is that if it can just hit protesters with enough heavy artillery, tanks, and helicopters, eventually people will just be terrified into submission. It’s important to stress that, if the protests drag on, the government’s strategy could work.

Their strategy doesn’t depend on a great deal of legitimacy, but rather on necessity: it means essentially starving as many places and people as possible, allowing massive food shortages to accumulate — by ignoring hoarding and speculation — until cities need military caravans to bring in food. The idea is that, as scarcities mount, people will turn against the protests out of fatigue and resignation, at which point the government can unleash even greater repression against protesters.

In the meantime, the government is trying to negotiate sectorally. They will try to negotiate with the regional strike committees and go through the motions of holding a dialogue with the National Strike Committee. Everybody knows those dialogues are not going to be serious, but they may try to buy off regional strike committees. But again, the National Strike Committee isn’t necessarily all that representative, so it isn’t clear yet how a negotiated solution could be worked out.

NA

It might be useful to pull back the lens to look at the protests in terms of the broader Colombian political economy. The primary motivation for the regressive tax reform is to address Colombia’s deep fiscal crisis. And solving that crisis is especially critical for government plans to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure network, which would attract foreign capital and increase export revenues — all while expanding extractive frontiers.

Viewed in that way, do you think the protests have the potential to connect apparently disparate demands, like popular consumption and social welfare, and environmental protection and Indigenous rights?

If you look at the points that are being negotiated by the National Strike Committee, there are a number of issues around mining, energy, environmental contamination, deforestation, wildlife, Indigenous territory, and so forth. So, almost one in four of the demands have to do with reforming the current economic model based on mining, energy extractivism, and agribusiness. This was not covered in the peace accords of 2016 between the government and the FARC. Of course, that model is dominated by multinationals and is basically brokered by clientelist networks of politicians, as well as neo-paramilitaries, who guarantee property rights on mining, energy, and agrarian frontiers.

Recently, something interesting has been happening: historically conservative towns in the countryside have been voting massively in plebiscites against extractivism in their territories. There’s a growing sense that the repudiation of this extractive activity is not only about environmental damages — the underlying economic model is increasingly being questioned.

The Colombian neoliberal model, associated with the economic reforms implemented in the early 1990s, is on trial. That system is protected by a bloated, US-backed counterinsurgent state — a national security state with massive police and military forces that are unleashed against the civilian population in order to enforce the neoliberal model. And as that system gets more and more regressive, people — especially the youth — are increasingly saying that this can’t be Colombia’s future — because that’s not a future to speak of.

So, yes, we can’t separate the demand for a liberal social welfare state from a fairly large-scale reorientation of the Colombian political economy. In fact, Colombia had begun to construct a national manufacturing base during the National Front from the 1950s through the 1970s, with internal markets that connected Colombia’s various cities and territories to one another. People are not calling for a return to that earlier development model, or the Cold War bipartisan consensus politics that went with it, but some kind of model oriented more toward national development, creation of a national market, some redistribution of wealth and income, and mitigation of inequality in the city and countryside. The repudiation of the neoliberal model may not yet be lock, stock, and barrel. But certainly most of that model’s major planks and platforms concerning health care, education, pensions, labor law, and a range of other sorts of public goods are being contested.

Colombia is perennially one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, which in turn is the most unequal region in the world. In that sense, the Cold War counterinsurgent state in Colombia has been necessary to bullet proof an incredibly exclusive economic model. And the only thing Duque has done since coming to power is to deepen that model in the most obscene and scandalous ways, in the midst of cascading corruption scandals.

People demonstrate against the government at the Heroes Monument in Bogotá on May 15, 2021. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s certainly a long distance to travel in order to dismantle both the counterinsurgent national security state and the kind of bullet-proofed neoliberal economic model it has guaranteed. But to judge from recent nationwide strikes, it looks as though the Colombian youth are in it for the long haul. This generation of Colombians has experienced an incredibly broad and deep politicization.

I speak of the long haul because, if there’s any force in Colombian politics that’s had nine lives, it is uribismo and the enduring political influence of far-right former president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe’s forces in the Centro Democrático may have some more ammo stored up, but I think they might be running out.

NA

Speaking of Uribe, could you speak a little bit about who he is and what uribismo stands for in Colombian politics? And a related question, how terminal do you think this crisis is for the political regime that he installed in the early 2000s?

Álvaro Uribe was president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010. He’s currently under investigation by the Supreme Court for bribes and witness tampering. While it’s very hard to pin anything on Uribe, there’s considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that he was a war criminal when he was president from 2006 to 2010.

The “false positives” scandal that you referenced earlier was a major event: the army disappeared some ten thousand civilian young men from urban peripheral neighborhoods in an effort to inflate the body count and say that they were waging a successful campaign against the FARC rebels. The counterinsurgency war was massively financed by the United States through Plan Colombia, Plan Patriot, and its successors under Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Uribe is associated with the idea that you can’t be neutral in an armed conflict against communist terrorist subversives: citizens need to be on board with the counterinsurgent state, and should collaborate actively with the army and the police. In that effort, uribismo has viewed all tactics as legitimate, including forced displacement, disappearing persons, extrajudicial murder, torture, narco-trafficking, vote-buying, threatening judicial officials up to and including Supreme Court justices — you name it.

When Uribe was governor of Antioquia, Colombia’s most populous region, from 1995 to ’97, he essentially legalized paramilitarism; later, when he was president, paramilitarism was in large measure institutionalized within or alongside the state, especially in frontier regions beyond state sovereignty, which were brought under control through combined military, paramilitary, and police terror.

Uribe has cast a long shadow over nearly every aspect of Colombian politics for the past twenty years. Under the administration of Juan Manuel Santos — who, despite being Uribe’s minister of defense, represented a slightly more moderate, enlightened neoliberalism — the peace process with the FARC began, and Uribe became the most important figure of opposition to the Santos government.

We’ve talked already about young people, university students, and high school students. They are the ones that most fully reject the hold that this corrupt, counterinsurgent mafia state has on Colombian society. They really want a liberal welfare state and society, and they’re willing to fight nonviolently — and even die — to achieve that. There’s something generational going on here, where young people are basically expressing a wholesale rejection of Uribe and the politics he represents. Their capacity for courage and heroism is difficult to overstate, and stands out even in the Latin American context, where state repression tends to be orders of magnitude greater than in the Global North.

NA

You’ve already mentioned the troubled peace process and explained how the continued justification of the counterinsurgency has acted as a barrier to broader social change in Colombia. Can you say a little more about how the paramilitary groups have been reactivated in recent years?

The peace accords that were signed at the end of 2016 between the government and the FARC rebels had a whole series of provisions. They didn’t really touch on the urban issues — they were designed to improve life in countryside and to sponsor cooperatives and productive employment for demobilized FARC soldiers. Instead of that happening, mid-level commanders and rank-and-file soldiers were hunted down one by one by these neo-paramilitary groups. One of the FARC’s negotiators, meanwhile, is set to be extradited to the United States on narco-trafficking charges.

Earlier, when he was president, Uribe negotiated the so-called demobilization of the paramilitaries. Some paramilitary leaders began to talk about their ties to politicians, businessmen, and military officials, including then president Uribe, so he quickly extradited them to the United States in 2008. Yet the majority got off scot-free and carried on with business as usual — whether that be drugs, guns, and control of territory, or control of public works, privatized health care systems, even some public and private universities. So the paramilitaries sort of morphed ­— their bread and butter is still the drug trade, but they were mostly interested in increasing profits and territorial control after 2008, and translating their economic gains into political gains. And they’ve been incredibly successful at doing that, especially in the mining, energy, and agribusiness frontiers.

So that’s one reason why social movement activists in the rural areas have been eliminated on such a massive scale since the peace accords were signed. Rural people have been more organized and militant than their counterparts in cities, as witnessed by the national agrarian strikes they waged under President Santos.

I think one of the interesting things about both the student and Indigenous movements is that they keep insisting on their constitutional right to protest — they’re touching a nerve and calling out the authoritarian nature of the counterinsurgent state, which responds with disproportionate and murderous force to any sign of social inconformity.

If the protests continue much longer, we’ll begin to see whether the more open use of paramilitary force is reactivated. We’ve seen a lot of evidence of police in plainclothes firing on demonstrators, often in vehicles with no license plates. There’s a thin line between what were once known as paramilitaries and the kind of state terror we’re now seeing, but so far, like guerrillas, paramilitaries have been conspicuously absent. Ditto the army. But that could change. However, to repeat, uribismo is a much-diminished force, and a shadow of what it was in its heydey.

NA

How much are the 2022 presidential elections hanging over the protests? You already mentioned that left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro, who is currently the projected front-runner, is mistakenly viewed as leading the demonstrators.

There’s still too much smoke in the air right now to say with confidence how the uprising will affect electoral poll numbers in Colombia. But I think the larger point has to do with a possible articulation between the political left in the Senate, mayoral offices, in city councils, and so forth, and the social movements themselves. The movements right now seem to be much broader than anything the left is able to encompass, and a great deal more decentralized than anything a national popular program could channel.

There’s a thin line between what were once known as paramilitaries and the kind of state terror we’re now seeing.

When he was a senator in 2006, Petro, who later became mayor of Bogotá, launched a series of denunciations and investigations into the historic ties between Uribe and paramilitaries in his home regions of Antioquia and Córdoba. Petro was an electrifying opposition figure at a time when opposing Uribe was almost like a death sentence, especially when it came to exposing his ties to paramilitary forces. And, as mayor of Bogotá, Petro showed himself willing to stand up to some of the more entrenched mafia interests in the capital. Colombia’s political establishment has tried to run him out of Colombian politics through lawfare, but so far they’ve failed.

Petro was a member of M-19, which was Colombia’s most urban guerrilla movement, and also its most nationalist. He demobilized in order to participate in the constitutional assembly that led to the drafting of the 1991 constitution. So he’s been a professional politician since the early ’90s. And his track record as an opponent of counterinsurgent neoliberalism is beyond question.

Petro’s program is basically a pretty moderate social democracy designed to bring the country in line with the progressive aspects of the 1991 constitution and the 2016 peace accords. When interviewed on the campaign trail in 2018, Petro said: “They keep trying to paint me as this kind of rabid communist follower of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. But in any country marginally less conservative than Colombia, people would immediately recognize that I am trying to pass progressive liberal reforms that should have been passed in Colombia in the twentieth century.”

There might be some real symbolic power there in terms of laying claim to a legacy of unfulfilled progressivism in Colombia’s political past. There have been attempts — unsuccessful — by the progressive wing of Colombia’s Liberal Party to transform the country. So, in that sense, I think the protests could redound to Petro’s benefit. For so long now Colombia has been seen as a semicolony of the United States — were Petro to win, it would be really dramatic in terms of the balance of electoral forces in South America.

NA

That’s interesting, because, as you pointed out, Colombia is a famously conservative country. It remains the regional torchbearer for the Washington Consensus and in some ways plays an even larger role than Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil in terms of tipping the political scales in Latin America toward the Right.

But, as you were just alluding to with Petro’s background in the M-19 guerilla organization and the progressive wing of the Liberal Party, Colombia has a really rich history of left-wing politics running back to Jorge Gaitán in the 1940s and beyond. Whatever one might think about the FARC or the ELN, those two organizations are some of the oldest left-wing formations in the western hemisphere. Do you think with the protests movements we might start to see left-wing politics remerge in Colombian society?

The point is well taken: it would be hard to find a country where there has been a more sustained effort to wipe “communism” and “communists” off the face of the map. By “communism” I’m here referring to the broad swath of the political spectrum that has been persecuted by the Colombian state in the course of endless counterinsurgency wars.

But the efforts to eradicate the Left and progressive liberalism in the name of anti-communism have never succeeded. Petro himself symbolizes that capacity for survival and renewal, a capacity that a number of movements and organizations have shown decade after decade in the face of fairly sustained terror.

Here, I think one really has to talk about the importance of the feminist movement and of women’s leadership roles in trying to make a place for civil society in the peace process. The work done by feminist groups laid so much of the groundwork for what’s happening today, and the presence of women — especially young women — as movement leaders is really apparent.

The role of women in urban politics has been apparent going back to the general strike in 1977. There’s a way in which that cycle is coming full circle today. We are once again seeing women play a decisive role at every level of leadership, and like young people — allowing for considerable overlap between the two categories — they seem to be in it for the long haul.

So even as we note the tragedy of state terror against the Colombian people, we should also take hope from their astonishing courage, fortitude, and resilience. They will not be silenced, and they will not go gently into the night.