“I can’t support a system which values something most people I know don’t have,” said Monica. The sentence lodged in my head. The off-the-cuff remark seemed to sum it all up. I put the menu card down as our fruit juices arrived. I thought them fairly cheap at 3 Bolivianos (25p) but Monica had already commented: “Blimey, how expensive.”
I had dragged Monica Apasa, a 22 year-old student, out of a youth meeting ten minutes earlier. She is actively involved in her residents association in District Four of El Alto (FEJUVE) and had helped lead the demonstrations for nationalization of gas in May and June. I wanted to find out why she had got involved.
At the age of 19, she had presented a paper to her residents association proposing that the council adopted resolutions calling on the Bolivian Government to stop paying the international debt, to expel the privatized water company Suez and to move towards nationalisation of gas.
At the age of 20, she had to remove three plastic bullets from her shoulder as a result of participating in protests for nationalisation of gas in October 2003 that led to the deaths of 67 people and the resignation of President
“I didn’t feel scared, because we were united,” she said matter-of-factly. But she admitted: “My parents don’t like what I am doing because they can’t see how it will get me a job.” She said that she wanted to fight for a Bolivia that drew from its history and embodied values of solidarity, community and participation.
I found her enthusiasm and passion infectious, but most of all I liked the fact that she was prepared to think creatively and fight strongly for a different world. The poverty and injustice that can be seen so clearly on her doorstep in the impoverished city of El Alto hadn’t defeated her. It had inspired her to do something about it.
It reminded me of a quote that I had read earlier on that day by Walter Solón Romero, the Bolivian muralist and founder of the institution where I now work:
“We can’t allow our dreams to disappear at the hour of waking. If we have lost faith in the myths of the past, then we must construct new dreams… We have all seen the world totter near the precipice of history: wars, revolutions, frustrations, victories, disasters … We all have experience to recreate a human utopia.”
Too often talking of alternatives to our current political and economic order is dismissed as unrealistic and a waste of time. Utopias are the pastime of dreamers – those who can’t live in the real world. Utopias that have been put into practice, such as in communist Russia, have even been proven to be highly dangerous.
But what Monica and Walter Solón were saying is that dreaming is essential. Past experience should guide us but not frighten us into thinking beyond our current reality. We can’t begin to construct until we start to dream.
Dreaming involves rejecting reality because we believe in something better. It involves creativity, allowing our imagination to wander rooted only by our values.
In this context, the experience of communism is not evidence of the danger of dreaming but the danger that comes when imagination and dreaming stops.
In the early days, communism rose as an ideal on a vision of equality, but it soon became appropriated by the domination of the all-knowing “party” and five year programmes that talked of following the inexorable processes of history.
Dreamers and idealists became the enemy, which was why writers and poets were the first to be locked up in mental institutions or sent to gulags in Siberia. An attempt to put dreams into cold storage.
For Walter Solón Romero, painting was an essential medium for creativity and imagination. He used paintings to express both the injustice that he saw but also his belief in a different world. Like dissidents in Russia, his artistic expression was frequently seen as dangerous by the authorities. In 1980 he was arrested and tortured. The police threatened to cut off his hands because they were the tools of his imagination.
Throughout his paintings and artistic works, Don Quijote became the most significant symbol of his struggle for justice, appearing in a series of paintings between 1967 and 1990.
The eccentric hero of Spanish novelist Cervantes is a suitable figure to communicate the importance of imagination in struggles for justice. The adjective "quixotic", meaning "idealistic and impractical", derives from the protagonist’s name.
During the two novels, Quijote is frequently dismissed as crazy as he sets off with his squire Sancho to right wrongs and protect the oppressed. He mistakes windmills for oppressive giants and believes peasant girls are beautiful princesses. At the end of the second book, Quixote decides on his deathbed that his actions have been madness. Sancho begs him not to give up.
Many people in Bolivia are determined not go give up, and continue to struggle for justice with creativity and imagination.
In a TV debate on human rights earlier this week, Elyzabeth Peredo and Pablo Solón together with the Sacha Llorenti, Head of the Assembly of Human Rights even said that they believed that the “right to madness” was the most important human right. It was a right that allowed us to be creative and to give us the confidence to fight for a different world when we are told there is no alternative.
I have always loved both art and politics but have often kept them apart. What I am appreciating here is how important art and creativity is to be political. In fact it’s an essential part of a vision for a different, just and more diverse world. Without it our politics becomes tired and dogmatic. We become a mirror image of the system we are trying to oppose.
As I said goodbye to Monica, I asked her what her message was to young people her age in England. She didn’t say “we need money” or to "get involved in campaigning". She pointed inwards. She said “We need to start a revolution in our mind as this will enable us to fight against a model that benefits only a few people and destroys the lives of many.”
A revolution of creativity, madness and beauty.