Blunt Trauma

Juan Carlos Cardenas idly twirls a spoon, then holds it still over his plate of rice. He sits in silence at Puerto Sagua restaurant on South Beach, as if inspecting the funhouse reflection of his goateed face in the spoon. He sits still for so long you'd never know he'd just been asked a question. Finally, in a raspy voice, he answers.

"I'm a Buddhist, so it's very hard for me to proselytize about anything," he ventures.

But in the course of conversation, he proves this simply isn't true. The events of the last year have turned Cardenas into something he never imagined he'd be. He has become a true-blue proselytizer, capable of inspiring and motivating even those least likely to listen. Cardenas advocates on behalf of a cause many of his Cuban-American compatriots shy away from, and in the course of doing so he has become a labor leader at the center of a ferocious battle to unionize Miami's Pan American Hospital.

Jailed by the Castro regime for attempting to escape Cuba, and kicked out of college in Havana for seditious poetry, 56-year-old Cardenas never thought he would become a part of anything that moved him even one degree closer to the leftist dogma of Castro's communism. But as he puts it: "Justice takes many forms."

He adds, "What we've been asking for at Pan American Hospital is very simple. It's just some reasonable protection for the employees. But the administration made everything ten times worse by treating us like we're less than nothing."

Officials at the Flagami-area hospital took an intractable stance after nurses, physical therapists like Cardenas, and maintenance workers protested cutbacks in benefits and overtime by contacting the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and deciding to hold an election. Anti-union flyers were circulated by administrators, at least one of them comparing the union movement to Marxism. And in the week leading up to the first of several federally supervised votes on unionizing, Cardenas and two others were fired.

The scare tactics backfired. In six elections held between January and March of last year, employees voted to unionize by an overwhelming margin.

Despite ratification of the vote by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the hospital's administrators, who claim the cutbacks resulted from severe financial problems, have spent some $400,000 fighting the employees' attempts to unionize. With workers and administrators at each others' throats, and with Pan American now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it's reasonable to wonder how long the hospital will be around.

Many Miami residents aren't even aware of Pan American's existence. But for central Miami's Cuban community, it's a familiar place. The not-for-profit, 150-bed facility at 5959 NW Seventh St. was founded by a group of exile doctors in 1963 with the aim of serving the city's rapidly growing Cuban population, people like 69-year-old Ramiro Acosta.

Acosta is among the 100 or so abuelos and abuelas who are part of the hospital's Generations Club, a daily free-lunch and activities group that meets at St. Dominic's, the church next door. For Generations Club members and many others, Pan American, which funds and staffs club activities, is an important symbol. "This hospital and I have been in Miami for about the same amount of time," says the affable Acosta. "I come here every day to see my friends, lose a couple of games of dominos -- but you have to get here by eight in the morning to get a [domino] table!

"I've been treated at Pan American before," Acosta continues. "I have many friends and a few family members who've been there. That makes people feel very warmly about the hospital and the people who work there. We all just hope they can get through this crisis."

Anyone who has spent an extended period of time in a hospital, or has a relative who's done so, knows how strong the connection can be among patients, their family members, and the doctors, nurses, and physical therapists who take care of them. This is especially true for the elderly, who make up a substantial portion of the hospital's clientele. One reason for the loyalty Pan American has engendered in Miami's Cuban community is the large number of people whose parents lived out their final days there. So the bond between the community and hospital is also a tie between the community and the hospital's employees. Pan American's executive director Vicente Sanchez admits as much when describing his response to the hospital's financial troubles: "I didn't want to bring in younger, cheaper employees because the people we had were primarily responsible for the way the hospital is viewed, the goodness it has."

If one were to trace the paths taken by Sanchez and Cardenas, the point of origin would be the same: Havana. Sanchez was born in 1947, Cardenas a year later. Sanchez's mother was an elementary school principal, his father a waiter. Cardenas's mother was a schoolteacher, his father a journalist.

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Forrest Norman
Contact: Forrest Norman

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