Queen of the Oldies

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.

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.

Carbonell's competitors in other agencies complain that she dominates what is available for seniors in Miami-Dade County so non-Cuban areas such as Little Haiti, Opa-locka, and South Miami-Dade go without the services they need. For example from Goulds to Leisure City, there are no state-funded meal sites for the elderly, according to a county survey. At times it has appeared that Little Havana is better at finding money than providing services. And even some of Carbonell's docile immigrant elderly charges have complained about the quality of the food ladled out at the cafeterias over the years.

While Carbonell has helped legitimize an important safety net for many of the county's low-income seniors, she also has enriched herself in the process. Little Havana provided a princely salary of more than $130,000 annually, a new-model BMW to drive, meals, and other perks. (To put it in perspective, in her new job running a billion-dollar agency, she will actually earn less -- between $110,000 and $125,000.) While executives at Little Havana enjoy sumptuous benefits and salaries in the $60- and $70-thousand-dollar range, lesser employees, like those who drive the center's buses, earn a poverty wage of about $12,000 -- with few, if any, perks.

"It was a salary of misery," says one former bus driver.

But even her fiercest critics acknowledge that the 51-year-old Carbonell, who came from Cuba as a small child, has been incredibly successful in the scope of the services she provides to her favored constituency. At the agency's headquarters, services include a small gym, adult and child daycare, plus a computer room with a massive database containing all the agency's clients. Those who have worked with her describe a multifaceted woman who can be charming and vivacious as well as vulgar and strident. They praise her energy and commitment. Short and stocky with blond hair, by all reckoning Carbonell is a kind of benign Evita.

"She is a visionary," comments Hernandez of Carbonell's efforts, while also admitting Little Havana has a virtual monopoly when it comes to the business of Miami-Dade elder care.

Hernandez herself once worked as a consultant for Carbonell, and rumor has it that Jeb Bush offered her job to Carbonell first. It's not surprising that the governor would defer to Josefina: They've worked well together as Republicans. For Jeb the loyalty of the elderly inhabitants of the agency's cafeterias will be crucial for his 2002 re-election effort.

But rather than take the job herself, Carbonell instead recommended Hernandez. She had her sights set higher, and on June 8, President George W. Bush nominated her to run the Administration on Aging.

Despite some criticism about the food and services they receive from Little Havana, for the seniors clustered around the tables at the government center, Carbonell can do no wrong. "She calls us her children," says one woman who is several decades older than Carbonell. "I like it because it shows she cares." Another woman talks about how the lunchrooms are a place where she can meet with friends, where before the meal there is music and dancing. "If they took the cafeteria away," she says. "I wouldn't last half an hour."

The social component of the comedores has been one of its strongest draws. And food could at times seem secondary to the importance of a place where fellow exiles could commiserate in their fierce hatred for Fidel Castro and their desire to return home.

Indeed the darker elements of Miami's Cuban-exile community snaked around the origins of the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center, coiling its good-natured founder and patron saint, Rafael Villaverde, in a seamy, suffocating hug. Eventually, perhaps, this darkness became strong enough to take Villaverde's life and catapult his assistant, Josefina Carbonell, into her present leadership role.

Before Villaverde disappeared he showed Carbonell by example several traits she appears to have adopted. "[Villaverde] was a guy who knew how to put things together and get things done," recalls Maurice Ferré, who was mayor of Miami in the early Eighties and has known both well. "He was an effective wheeler and dealer."

Ferré says both the mentor and the woman who would supplant him proved themselves honorable and dependable people who surrounded themselves with smart helpers and did "important, good things [but] let others take credit for [them]."

Villaverde certainly preferred the deep background, a lesson not lost on Carbonell (who avoided this reporter adroitly). Before the report of Villaverde's mysterious "death," he had already worked for the CIA, plotted assassinations, and managed to get busted for drug trafficking. The Bay of Pigs veteran never backed down from his anti-Castro activities or Miami politics. But he vanished during a state criminal investigation before he could clear his name on the drug charges, which seem to have stemmed from a vendetta by an unsavory fellow ex-CIA exile with whom he had a falling out: a drug runner, police informant, and worse named Ricardo "Monkey" Morales.

Morales had gone from the agency to drug trafficking, whereas Villaverde had hooked up with the United Fund (a precursor to United Way), where he learned how to work the social-services game. (He would use a $50,000 grant from the organization to found his Little Havana comedores.) Their previous training no doubt taught both men that the law can be flexible at times, and it's a lesson Villaverde might well have passed on to his young assistant Carbonell, though there is no indication she was ever involved in any of the things her mentor was charged with, or suspected of.

In the Seventies many exiles with CIA attachments ended up employed in the public sector through the help of their former handlers, who thus kept them in eating money. "Many converted from “men of action' into “men of the community,'" notes Max Lesnik, an exile magazine publisher and friend of Villaverde.

In 1972 Villaverde opened his first cafeteria for the elderly on Calle Ocho. It's unclear how quickly he recognized the political implications of his gathering place for old people. According to Lesnik two of Villaverde's main patrons were U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper and Mayor Maurice Ferré. (Pepper himself had previously found a base of popularity in the Jewish cafeterias, earning a reputation as a champion of the elderly.) With Carbonell at his side, Villaverde and the wily pols were the first to bring local politics to Miami's Cuban viejos. "It was the start of a great political machine," recalls Lesnik.

Carbonell would fine-tune that machine. She would do it without the drug accusations and the assassination plots, and ride it all the way to Washington, D.C.

Villaverde became a political cacique, a person who could bring in enough votes to get someone elected. The elderly loved him, according to all accounts. The period coincided with the first wave of Cuban-American politicians, but Villaverde preferred to let others operate in the foreground. "He was very popular, and he could have easily been a [city] commissioner," believes Lesnik (a claim Carbonell could make as well).

In his effort to nail Villaverde, Monkey Morales gave a tip to the cops that resulted in operation Tick Talks, so named for a bug placed in a house clock of a Villaverde friend. The investigation hit the news in August 1981 with the arrest of Villaverde, the first to be taken in a sweep that involved 53 warrants and included his two brothers, Raul and Jorge. Rafael Villaverde was charged with trafficking and selling cocaine.

Upon release a defiant Villaverde, with cheering viejos behind him, stepped down as executive director of Little Havana. His assistant executive vice president, Josefina Carbonell, took command with the promise that "nothing would change."

By March 1982, prosecutors appeared willing to drop some of the charges against Villaverde. Later that month he and six others set out on a "fishing trip" for the Bahamas in a 36-foot cabin cruiser called the Michele, towing a boat of almost equal size. A suspicious fire broke out, and all the men escaped in the spare boat except Villaverde, who along with the Michele, vanished without a trace. Many in Miami believe the disappearance was a cover and that Villaverde is alive and well, living somewhere in Spain.

In November 1982 a judge tossed out the Tick Talks case, and the next month someone put a bullet in Monkey Morales's brain in a Key Biscayne bar. A few days later Carbonell named her Little Havana center cafeteria after Rafael Villaverde.

Josefina Carbonell has made an indelible mark on the landscape of Miami-Dade County's social services for the elderly. After taking the lead from Villaverde, she fashioned a nonprofit powerhouse that the exile fighter hardly could have imagined. What began with 100 viejos eating lunch in Little Havana has blossomed into more than one million meals per year, served both in lunchrooms and delivered to homes.

"In the end there is no question that she was much more effective than Rafael," declares Ferré.

But along the way critics charge Carbonell has thoroughly politicized social services for seniors to the extent that providers who are not Cuban or don't have a lunchroom for politicians to visit are passed over. (Candidates, on the other hand, love the economics of the comedores, with their promise of Costco-style vote shopping.)

"It's almost like being in a house where there are preferred children who always get fed, and [the others receive food] only if there is something left over," complains one non-Cuban social-services provider who is afraid her frank criticism could jeopardize her future funding. "There is a protected group that always gets the funding no matter what --or at least that's the perception."

Maps produced by the State of Florida for the county's Alliance for Human Services give stark testimony to the inequality in the distribution of funds for Miami-Dade's elderly. In one that shows meal sites, color-coded by agency, the dominant shade is Little Havana yellow, clustered in Miami's urban core. Further north, in pockets of poverty like Opa-locka or down south in the Princeton-Naranja area, the map is devoid of meal sites.

Part of the problem is that until recently, commissioners doled out county dollars for the elderly based on getting votes rather than on an overall assessment of the county's needs. And nobody could furnish the votes like Little Havana. "Providers set up their service boundaries in the way they chose rather than being mandated by planning," explains Debbie Kleinberg, executive director of the North Miami Foundation for Senior Citizens Services. "That's why, in the end, there are gaps in service."

A self-perpetuating cycle evolved. Centers favored by local politicians were awarded funds, grew, developed cafeterias, and then became even more attractive as political gold mines.

A March 1999 county resolution by county Commissioner Natacha Seijas called for a comprehensive social-services plan in Miami-Dade that would depoliticize the grants process for county funds. The Alliance for Human Services grew out of this resolution and was charged with putting together the first overview of social-services agencies in the county. Alexandria Douglas, executive director of the alliance, says after distilling all the disparate pieces of information into charts and graphs, she was struck by the holes in service. As an example Douglas points to the conspicuous lack of any senior center in Little Haiti.

Leonie Hermantin, executive director of the Haitian-American Foundation, says the initiative spearheaded by the Alliance for Human Services marks the first time that anyone in charge of doling out funds has designated Little Haiti as a priority. In the past, she points out, the Haitian elderly simply have been "overlooked."

"If you look at the level of need -- these are agricultural workers, with no retirement funds, no safety net whatsoever," Hermantin says. "These are the poorest of the poor."

But in designating the Haitian elderly a priority, Douglas has upset a long-standing funding hierarchy, as more established centers have been forced to take a hit. The Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center has pulled in $314,500 from the county this year as opposed to $355,000 in 2000; Douglas says she received a letter from Carbonell a few months ago inquiring why. Others aren't so soft-spoken. Douglas has twice been asked to explain the rationale for her funding decision at county commission meetings. She expects to hear more complaints.

Ostensibly Carbonell will leave all this behind when she travels to Washington, D.C. If state secretary of elder affairs Gema Hernandez is correct, Carbonell will then learn that her stock-in-trade of free cafeterias will loom less large in the world of elderly services. It will be up to Carbonell to discover a replacement. "One thing Josefina will find is that [her] new cohort of elders is not playing bingo and eating what the government provides," says Hernandez. Carbonell will have to change her methods.

This past February auditors from the state department of elder affairs came to Miami-Dade from Tallahassee to review the Alliance for Aging, one of eleven organizations in Florida charged with distributing state and federal dollars for the elderly. While going through the books, a number of salary overpayments came to light, among them Josefina Carbonell's hefty $130,602 annual earnings. The state cap on wages for positions such as hers is $85,000, and the elder-affairs department was paying an indeterminate sum over that for Carbonell, with the agency receiving the rest from other sources.

"We were not aware of the requirement before," explains Linda Levin, the Alliance for Aging's director of contract management. "[The department of elder affairs] had never pointed it out to us."

Levin says she contacted Carbonell to inform her that the alliance could only cover the $85,000. Little Havana agreed to raise the rest with other funding from private nonprofits like United Way, which are not tied to the same state-regulated wage caps. In addition to revealing a startling lack of oversight of Carbonell's nonprofit, the incident also underscores the skewed pay scale at Little Havana, whereby executives gourmandize while other workers eat at KFC.

"There is a saying we Cubans use that describes what it was like to live on what they paid," says one ex-driver. "It was like, “Trying to paint a Coca-Cola from thin air.'"

This year Little Havana found itself unable to collect on $191,516 the feds gave it to deliver meals to individuals infected with HIV as part of its Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Office. This past March the Ryan White staff learned from a county attorney that all providers who received more than $100,000 had to pay their workers a "living wage" of $8.76 per hour plus health benefits, or $9.81 without benefits as per a May 1999 county commission ordinance.

When staff sent the contract to Little Havana, they included an affidavit about the living wage. Shortly thereafter Dan Wall, the CARE office administrator, received a call from Carbonell's nephew, Little Havana director of communications, Ramon Perez Goizueta. He informed Wall that the agency couldn't sign the contract because it was not paying workers enough under county rules. (Perez Goizueta points out this is a problem many social-services agencies are encountering in light of the new ordinance.)

A 1999 tax form reveals that Carbonell and her executives had a median income of $77,201 in 1999. At the bottom of the ladder, the sixteen bus drivers who shuttle the old people to the cafeterias and clinics made an average of $13,915 that year. The bus drivers assert they often work longer than 40-hour weeks, which for some drops their salaries below minimum wage.

The state of the guaguas (buses), which ferry the seniors to the cafeterias, is abysmal according to those who use them; even the air conditioners don't always work. State records show 10 out of 24 date to 1985 or earlier.

"The buses are like us," says one of the viejos on the government terrace. "If you fix one thing, another breaks down."

Perez Goizueta acknowledges the problem and says it's hard to find funding for capital improvements. When the buses break down, Little Havana fixes them as quickly as possible, he says.

But some at the center ride in slightly better style. Carbonell drives a leased $40,000 BMW paid for by the center. (Little Havana claims Carbonell contributes about twenty percent to the lease payment.) Mario Miranda, who worked at Little Havana for six months before being asked to step down, says he drove a $50,000 Lincoln Navigator comped by the organization.

Fortunately for Carbonell and Little Havana, the horse-trading runs smoother than the buses sometimes do. Perhaps accustomed to the agency's way of making up rules as they go along, Perez Goizueta asked Wall about the possibility of either amending the Living Wage ordinance or finding an exception for Little Havana.

"They wanted to pursue all options," Wall says.

He did not hear from Little Havana again until mid-July, when he called a meeting with Perez Goizueta and Assistant County Attorney Terrence Smith. After an afternoon spent hashing out details, Perez Goizueta vowed the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center would bring the workers, whose wages are covered by the Ryan White fund, up to the county's living-wage figure.

After the speeches on the government center terrace, the politicians patted a few elderly heads and beat a hasty retreat. A group of seven women sitting at one of the tables compared the lunch they had just eaten with the fare at Little Havana's cafeterias. The women ranged in age from sixty-five to early eighties.

"The day to go [to the comedores] is Monday," explained one of them.

The rest of the week can be troublesome apparently.

"Like Fantasy Five day," another vieja interjected. They go on to explain that the joke name refers to a dish consisting of five small meatballs of unknown origin.

In June 1998 questions about the quality of Little Havana's food made it past the torrents of praise for Carbonell normally published in El Nuevo Herald. Reporter Jeannette Rivera-Lyles wrote about 52 viejos who signed a letter and described the food as "very bad" and "unpleasant." Carbonell dismissed their objections as an isolated incident.

In their defense Little Havana officials point to a survey they commissioned that gave high marks to the food, which is planned by a nutritionist and developed to Cuban tastes.

Little Havana's meal contract -- at more than two million dollars -- would be the envy of any big company. The sum breaks down to $2.29 for a lunchroom meal and 60 cents more for home delivery.

What is truly remarkable given the juiciness of the contract is that one provider, Migdalia and Esteban Bencomo, have prepared Little Havana meals since about 1984. (The Alliance for Aging must approve the contract that Little Havana sends out to bid -- the center is left to its own discretion in terms of choice of caterer.)

If the Bencomos' meals have helped fuel Little Havana's growth, a federal initiative to provide job training may have taught Carbonell that her agency had grown too fast. The South Florida Training and Employment Council gave $688,000 to Little Havana to run the program, which rewarded the agency for each person for whom they found a job for between October 1, 2000 and June 30, 2001. But Carbonell's group had to give back the money, purportedly because it did not have the bare minimum of space required, even though funds existed to rent additional rooms.

"After a couple of meetings with the management personnel of Little Havana, they decided that their real niche is in terms of serving the elderly and immigrant population," says Joseph Alfano, executive director of the South Florida Training and Employment Council.

But a Little Havana employee complaint involving allegations that she was asked to falsify documents to show the agency had obtained jobs for people also could have played a role in the sudden shutdown of the program. Both the person who made the complaint and a supervisor were removed from the agency, and the latter was convinced to sign a confidentiality agreement. The council investigated the allegations and deemed them "vague, unspecific, and unreliable" -- though they did chide Little Havana for using Wite-Out on official documents.

Current mayoral candidate Maurice Ferré does not believe Carbonell does anything untoward. "I don't think she crosses the line," says Ferré, who terms Josefina a "superstar."

"Sometimes she goes right up to the line, but it's the only way to survive in this town."

Carbonell also has survived by maintaining that solid and loyal group around her. Ramon Perez Dorrbecker, her successor, for example, is married to her half-sister Teresita. (Perez Dorrbecker has been at the center for as long as Carbonell.) Some rival social-services providers hope Perez Dorrbecker will not be able to exert the same influence as his sister-in-law. They hope her departure could increase the number of organizations that receive money to help the elderly.

But Washington, D.C., is not Miami. Carbonell might find the capital a cold and inhospitable place. Press scrutiny is a little more severe. The kind of loyalty she demanded from her employees at Little Havana will be in short supply in a giant federal bureaucracy. And no longer will a comedor filled with adoring and like-minded elderly be just a stroll away.

Intern Daniela Lamas contributed to this story.


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