Luz Parras, phone operator for the nonprofit Leiv Eiriksson Seamen's Center at the Port of Miami, makes all kinds of connections for international mariners. "One woman crew member from Peru was going to marry a guy who worked on her ship, but she didn't have a wedding dress," Parras recalls. "So I put her in my car and took her to buy one. Another time a Colombian guy's mother died and he had no money to call ... so I made the call for him anyway. People leave me money to buy things for their children, or to mail things or to buy a rice cooker for their mother. They have very little time when they come in here, so we help them."
Now Parras and other employees at the center say they may be forced from their jobs. They fear that a crackdown resulting from last year's port scandal and the influence of a politically connected businessman could sink them.
Albert Douk, owner of Miami Cruise Ship Services, has hired lobbyist Rodney Barreto to help him take over the center's lunch counter, post office, and gift shop, as well as services including long-distance telephone, money wiring, and video rental. Douk, who did not respond to two calls and two visits to his store by New Times, offers competing services at his locale in the port.
The center, founded in 1974, was originally funded by the Norwegian government because two of the world's largest cruise companies are based in Norway -- Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. They named it for the great Scandinavian explorer and seaman. Eventually the cruise operators hired mostly Third World employees, so the Norwegian government withdrew support. Since 1988 the center has relied on retail operations to cover most of the budget. Former port director Carmen Lunetta was a member of the center's board of directors and arranged for the organization to pay only nominal rent.
But this past May, Lunetta was forced to resign. On June 3 prosecutors charged him with illegally using port revenues for donations to political parties and to purchase luxuries such as Super Bowl tickets. It was also revealed that Lunetta had allowed some tenants at the port to operate rent-free.
In July County Manager Merrett Stierheim, at least partly as a result of Lunetta's alleged crimes, wrote a letter to center board member Bill Armstrong saying that all the center's retail operations would be put out to bid. Employees and some board members then felt unfairly entangled in the aftermath of the Lunetta scandal. "We don't run those retail services to make profits, but just to survive and to support the other activities we offer," proclaims Armstrong, a former ship's captain. Those services include counseling, maintenance of a swimming pool and soccer field, and sponsorship of other sports activities.
"In ports all over the Earth you see centers such as this one, and they are supported the way ours is," says Armstrong, referring to the center's retail operations. "Crew members come from everywhere and speak different languages. They are far from home. They need help at times. They have troubles in the family or someone has died. They want to talk to a priest."
Armstrong fears that Douk -- aided by Barreto -- will manage to skew the bidding process and win the concession unfairly. He cites Miami-Dade's history of corruption. Armstrong says county leaders don't understand the special needs of maritime personnel and the importance of assuring the Eiriksson Center's survival. "[Douk] won't be able to help them. But lots of money is involved in this, and lots of politics."
On days when cruise ships tie up at the port, disgorging one group of passengers and taking on another, the center is packed. Each ship employs hundreds of crew members, many of whom use the 22 phone booths to call home to one of the 79 countries listed on a large board -- from Botswana to Macedonia, Slovenia to Malaysia, Ecuador to India. Many sailors wire money to needy families.
Others like 29-year-old Harry Berislavic of Croatia, a restaurant manager on the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Imagination, have special needs. Like many people from the the former Yugoslavia, he fled to the sea when his country exploded in civil war in 1991. Though his hometown of Rijeka is at peace now, it was important for him to stay in touch with his family while the fighting raged. He did so through Parras, who learned to greet him in Croatian. "These people here are always very good to you, very friendly," he says. "I hope they stay here."
Some crew members are worried that if Douk takes over the center's retail operations and only one such enterprise exists at the port, prices will rise. "Many of the crew, because they get their room and board for free, take home little, maybe $500 per month," says Stein Karlsen of Norway, a 34-year-old refrigeration engineer on the cruise ship Enchantment. "They can't afford higher prices. They shouldn't close this place."
"And you know Douk will raise prices," says Cristina Tovar, the center's gift shop manager. "He'll run it only for business reasons."
Center employees don't like Douk. They have received complaints from crew members who claim they were cheated by his establishment. In one such case, Luis Telles, who worked aboard the ship Norway, bought a winning $500 lottery ticket at Douk's Miami Cruise Ship Services. But when he tried to cash it in November of 1997, he was told he had to pay $150 in taxes. "That's wrong," says Humberto Hernandez, sales representative for the Florida Lottery. "No vendor should charge tax on anything under $600. Maybe they were trying to take advantage of him."
Telles returned the net $350 to Douk's business and got his winning ticket back, says former center employee Jackie Habgood. She helped Telles collect from the state and called lottery security offices to complain. Lottery officials have no record of the complaint, though they acknowledge having directly paid Telles for his ticket.
Barreto denies any knowledge of the complaints. He will not detail his work for Douk's business, saying only: "I've talked to some [commission] staff members and a few other people."
In April Armstrong wrote to County Mayor Alex Penelas expressing his concerns. "I fear a concessionaire would take advantage of the seamen," he said. "It would be the county's way of telling the ship's workers that it couldn't care less about them and their safety."
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Penelas wrote back praising the center as "an oasis of calm," but passed the issue to Stierheim. The manager wrote back, also commending the center's work. And he went further. "Seaport retail leases are generally subject to competitive award," Stierheim wrote. "We are obligated to follow necessary public policies and procedures."
"They praise us and at the same time they are trying to put us out of business," complains Armstrong.
Another board member disagrees with Armstrong. Peter Whelpton, a vice president of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, has been negotiating a contract for the retail operations with Douk at the request of new port director Charles Towsley. "I've heard accusations against Mr. Douk but no proof," says Whelpton.
Armstrong isn't buying it. "The whole cruise industry, which brings a lot of money to this town, depends on the friendly service of the crew members," he argues. "You want to keep them happy, and we help do that. They should let us continue. But if they insist on taking [retail services] away from us, then I think they should go out to bid so everybody has a chance. It should not be decided by some deal cut in some backroom. We've seen already in this county that those deals don't serve the people's interest.