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Jose Suarez

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Will Carnival Cruiselines' CEO Micky Arison Become Miami's Warren Buffet or Ebenezer Scrooge?

Posted: 04/12/2012 5:58 pm

Tax season is finally upon us, and yesterday we spoke the truth to one of the corporate powers that is sinking Miami's economy, Carnival Cruise Lines. After weeks of letting the community know about Carnival's dreadful practices, we decided to accompany concerned shareholders to Carnival's annual shareholders meeting at the swank W Hotel on South Beach. We went armed with the fact that the cruise giant isn't giving Miami its fair share when it is so desperately needed.

Our hope was that Carnival's CEO, Micky Arison, would become Miami's version of Warren Buffet. You know, encouraging the country's corporations and billionaires to be good neighbors and pay just a little more of what they owe in taxes. Instead, Micky's instinct was to double down and remind us that he does a lot for our city, like giving us a symphony. He also wanted to remind us that Carnival would have to relocate to China if it were forced to pay its fair share. Are you kidding me!

On a personal level, I was deeply disappointed by Micky's response. Shame on me! After all, there is a track record. Micky's father, Ted Arison, actually renounced his U.S. citizenship in order to unsuccessfully avoid paying some of his taxes. Beyond that, Carnival's real trouble with civic engagement started in 1972, when the "Miami-based" company decided to incorporate in Panama while leaving its corporate office in Doral, Florida. As a result, the cruise giant only pays a rate of less than 1 percent globally. Last year Carnival barely paid any taxes at all (see page 54).

Having a corporate office in Miami, but big ships from Panama, allows Carnival to skirt (see page 1) most U.S. labor, tax and consumer protection laws, while they make a significant portion of their profits from U.S. consumers. But wait! That's not all. Carnival also reaps the benefits of our customs officials, waterways and the Coast Guard, at little to no cost, leaving you and me to make up the difference with our tax dollars. As for all the veiled threats of moving to China, does anyone really expect us to believe that snowbirds are going to take a trip to Shanghai to jump on a weekend cruise to the Bahamas?

Then there is this constant insistence that giving money to charity excuses anyone from paying their taxes. Symphonies are great, but they don't make schools stop falling apart, fill the potholes in our roads or put more police on the street. No matter what, giving $30 million over the past five years to your charity of choice doesn't give you the right to avoid paying the billions you owe in taxes.

I think back to that Revolutionary War motto, "no taxation without representation." Nowadays, I feel like saying "no representation without taxation." Because every time we've engaged politicians asking them to do something about the "Carnival loophole" that so generously benefits the cruise industry, they act like Carnival is a bigger constituent than we are... the people. At a recent congressional hearing for cruise safety, both of our senators leaped out of their chairs to praise the cruise industry and all that it "contributes" to Florida. We sent a letter to both senators Nelson and Rubio imploring them to fight for what's right. Of course, we received no response. 1Miami even invited Sen. Marco Rubio to stand up for his constituents as a proxy at the same Carnival shareholder meeting, but maybe he was getting ready for his book tour, because we were told that he would be too busy during the April recess.

Well, if our politicians don't want to do anything for us, we will just have to do it ourselves. That's why we went inside the shareholders meeting to demand Carnival pay its fair share in taxes. We wanted to make sure that the millionaires and billionaires inside heard about the pain that the rest of Miami is feeling from the Great Recession. Some may call it a disruption, we call it a reality check.

Angela Samuels, who was rudely escorted out of the shareholder meeting for speaking the truth, shared her story of hardship and how she lost a close friend to cancer who did not have health insurance. RN Martha Baker, president of SEIU Local 1991 and a nurse at Jackson, spoke out about the budget cuts her hospital has seen and the diminishing quality in patient care, which could be improved if more corporate tax dodgers paid their fair share. Rev. Guillermo Marquez-Sterling spoke up about the moral imperative to give back to the community that has done so much for Carnival.

Our point isn't to attack Carnival or Arison. It isn't to boycott cruises or tear down the symphony. We just want the people who claim to love our city, to step up and prove it. The same way Carnival stepped up and ensured that lovers of the fine arts could stay in Miami, Carnival and Arison need to pay their fair share and be real leaders in a city facing budget cuts, foreclosures and high unemployment.