Queen of the Oldies

Josefina Carbonell, Miami's queen of viejo politics, goes to Washington

There is a species of ethnic opportunist at work in Miami-Dade County, feeding off low-income seniors in the name of altruism. It has tapped into a rich vein of public money whose main tributaries are meals and health care for the elderly. As the money comes in, it appropriates enough for hefty salaries and lucrative contracts for itself and its friends. In return the old folks, desperately needy and grateful for almost anything, receive substandard services. The partner in this process is the politician, who guarantees the flow of money, no questions asked. All he demands in exchange is that his confederate deliver senior votes on election day. Thus a bad system perpetuates itself.

In Miami's Spanish street slang, these opportunists are sometimes derisively called chupa viejos -- literally "those who suck the old."

A few weeks ago, on Friday the Thirteenth, the kind of ritual that attracts chupa viejos occurred on the third-floor terrace of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. The ceremony to mark the transfer of $52 million in state funds to private nonprofits to pay for feeding the elderly had all the trappings of a party. The seniors and their chaperones were bused to the event from the cafeterias that serve them "free" lunches. (Most diners pay a "suggested" donation of 50 cents for the food.) Politicians promised and pontificated while 60 or so Cuban-American seniors from Hialeah and Little Havana sat around balloon-festooned tables. After smiling, listening, and clapping for their food, the seniors were served arroz con pollo, followed by cake.

Gema Hernandez, Florida department of elder affairs secretary, bringing the bacon to Little Havana
Steve Satterwhite
Gema Hernandez, Florida department of elder affairs secretary, bringing the bacon to Little Havana

Above all this floated the spirit -- some would say the specter -- of Josefina Carbonell, the godmother of viejo politics and the queen of the cafeterias (called comedores locally). Indeed the seniors gathered on the terrace are part of Carbonell's social-services empire. Josefina was 1000 miles away, in Washington, D.C., meeting with U.S. senators -- who are expected at any moment to confirm her to the post of assistant secretary for the Administration on Aging.

It's an important position, one that will give her the reins of a national agency with a $1.1-billion-dollar budget that is charged with looking out for the nation's elderly. The previous assistant secretary, Jeanette Takamura, had seven years' experience at the helm of the state department for elder affairs in Hawaii; she also had a Ph.D. in social policy from Brandeis University. Carbonell never graduated from college but can boast about having transformed a social-services agency with a shady past -- the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center at SW Eighth Street and Seventh Avenue -- into the largest operation of its kind in Florida.

In twenty years she amassed sixteen lunchrooms in Miami-Dade that serve hundreds of thousands of meals per year. Not content with simply providing food, her agency also offers services such as daycare, medical clinics, and job placement. Little Havana, as it's known, receives money from federal, state, county, and municipal governments. A little more than nine million dollars flowed through its offices and comedores in 1999, the latest year for which there are figures. United Way also is a sponsor. One of the oversize checks handed out by Florida secretary of elder affairs Gema Hernandez on the terrace that Friday was for $260,000, destined for the population Carbonell likes to call her viejitos. Carbonell regularly dealt with, among others, Gov. Jeb Bush, county Mayor Alex Penelas, county Commissioner Bruno Barriero, and, back in the day, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré.

Carbonell doesn't just know how to play viejo politics in Miami; she helped invent it. Her cafeterias are must-visits for all candidates. Wisely Carbonell has allowed Republicans and Democrats alike to visit the old folks, a bipartisanship that has proved a boon as she looks for support in the U.S. Senate for her confirmation. Her agency can be counted on to bus in the elderly when a political backdrop is required for a sound bite, or when bodies need to be rounded up for transport to the polls. With almost twenty percent of the county's population at 60 years of age and older, and more than half of them Hispanics who tend to vote, it's the ballot box that has made Josefina Carbonell one of the strongest unelected figures in South Florida.

"If Josefina had wanted Gore, he would have won," claims a politically active social-services provider. The statement is possibly exaggerated, but in a presidential election decided by a few hundred votes, maybe not.

Oddly enough in two decades, neither Carbonell nor her agency has ever received serious media scrutiny. Few in her incestuous world will talk publicly about a woman who will soon control federal funding for South Florida's elderly. From her staff the godmother (not too strong a word) demands absolute loyalty; perhaps for this reason, blood relatives -- brother-in-law Ramon Perez Dorrbecker, a vice president of Little Havana who will now assume its leadership, and nephew Ramon Perez Goizueta, her press secretary -- are among the closest to her. More than 60 percent of the staff are elderly themselves, and most have worked at the center since its inception. Yet after interviews with current and former employees, pols, and functionaries in the viejo world, New Times has uncovered several layers of criticism.

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It is always heartwarming to hear about people serving as caregivers for the elderly. These people are the angels of our community sent by God to watch over those need. Reading about the good work people are doing for the community inspires and motivates you to good.


You got some of the details right but missed the biggest, most obvious ones. What a shame you didn't contact any of the original staff. If you had all the numbers correct, you would have been able to connect the dots.

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