In my rumors, typical of an old age in exile, I do not call my country Venezuela. I call it the Hamilton Grant. Who is this Hamilton?
The cinephile memory recommends me New York gangs, that Scorsese film, released in 2002 and in which Daniel Day-Lewis made our blood run cold. Although, historically, Scorsese’s is not the New York of my Horacio Hamilton, who lived in that city only some time later, its atmosphere took over the way in which I have always imagined that the days and life of Hamilton happened, without that this affects its tragicomic and Caribbean essence. It is in the already Spanish-speaking New York where this story begins.
Hamilton was an Englishman and came to Gotham City as an emigrant, where, who knows by what propensity towards the exotic — nothing alien, for the rest, to the Victorian spirit of the time — he joined a gathering of Spanish-American exiles and flawless. The most notable and vocal members of the parish were, no less, José Martí and his Venezuelan friend, Juan Antonio Pérez Bonalde, poet and translator of Poe y Heine. Pérez Bonalde’s translation of The Raven it is still very celebrated today. As is known, Martí lived the last 25 years of his life in the city of Tito Puente.
Hamilton, I must also point out, was not a lord, nor was he highly enlightened: he was a native of southern England, from a town near Brighton, and was simply seeking his fortune in America. We know little else about him, except that he did not conform to Yankee ways and that those Hispanic Americans were his favorite gang. By the time of my story, the mid-1980s, I was a traveling agent for an English canned biscuit firm.
I’m talking about Danish-type cookies, ideal for tea time. The ones he represented were the best. None of this is my invention, it is all contained in a book written by my friend Nikita Harwich Vallenilla, a notable Venezuelan economic historian.
Hamilton, perhaps because the favorite subject of Martí and Pérez Bonalde was Venezuela, released one night at the inn that he would like to try his luck with his cookies in Bolívar’s homeland. What the poor Hamilton had in mind was to convene a “Tupperware meeting,” an “Avon product date,” with wealthy Venezuelan housewives. Wives of coffee and cocoa planters, owners of Guayanese mines, hostesses so imagined. Something modestly ambitious, if the oxymoron lends itself.
Although Martí hated the Venezuelan dictator of the time, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, who had expelled him from my country, the Apostle put his contacts at Hamilton’s disposal. And the best of his contacts in Caracas was his own wife, María Paoli, Mantilla’s widow.
María, the protagonist in her own right of a moving love story that does not fit in my year-end trifle, was Venezuelan and offered to write to her best friend from Caracas, recommending the seller of biscuits for tea.
Her friend, surnamed Smith, belonged to a distinguished family descended from an English legionnaire who fought in our War of Independence. Hamilton and his sample of cookies, therefore, arrived in Caracas with very good auspices.
Someone went for him to the inn in Veroes and our Englishman spent a delightful afternoon amidst encopetadas, beautiful ladies who ordered quintals of biscuits. The next morning, a picket of soldiers arrived at the inn and took him prisoner.
Taken into the presence of the dictator Guzmán Blanco, Hamilton was presented with top-quality coffee and shared his own cookies with the dictator. It was only then that he learned from Guzmán Blanco that the mansion of large cocoas where the Tupperware meeting it was precisely the dictator’s house. His wife, a friend of Mrs. Smith, had seized the occasion.
Guzmán was convinced, little talk, that Hamilton was not a cloaked agent of the Bank of England to whom the nation owed a risky loan due to the fragility of the economy. He also asserted that, although a friend of Martí, an enemy always careful, Hamilton was not an international conspirator. He invited him to stay a few days in Caracas.
It is time to say that, in that remote time, the developed countries of the planet were already paving their avenues and highways. One of the largest asphalt companies in the world, a forerunner of the oil companies with which Venezuela would later have a deal, courted the dictator Guzmán for access to the great asphalt lake of Guanoco, in the Orinoco delta.
When Hamilton saw the dictator again, this time in the living room of his house, between the corners of Carmelitas and Conde, he became the president of the local branch of the New Yok Asphalt Co. on whose staff Guzmán was discreetly listed as a member. He was appointed honorary consul of Venezuela in New York City.
Thirty years later, another dictator denounced the concession as unconstitutional. He wanted the concession for himself, of course, and he expropriated it, as Chávez or Maduro would have done. The country was split in two.
It was the time of Teddy Roosevelt, the coast was filled with gunboats and a revolution of the time left thousands of victims. In the end, the dictator was overthrown and his successor made his peace with Washington. The concession was terminated in 1935 when asphalt was no longer a commodity.
The anti-imperialist proclamation of the dictator who wanted to seize the concession still inflames the rhetoric of Bolivarians. Horacio Hamilton died in New York without ever having returned to the country that made his fortune.
Have a great 2022, everyone!
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