June 22, 1995 in Nation/World

Chelsea’s Classmates Going To Cuba For Vacation, Then Possibly Jail Organization Protests Law Banning Most Americans From Traveling To Cuba

Christopher Marquis Knight-Ridder
 

Neither of their heads poked much higher than the clump of microphones at their morning press conference.

But there they stood - two wide-eyed teenage classmates of first daughter Chelsea Clinton’s - staring down the possibility of 10 years in prison and up to $300,000 in fines.

All because of their choice for a summer vacation: Cuba.

“The best way to learn about people is through interaction,” said Jody Avirgan, 14, rocking on his tennis shoes before a battery of cameras at the headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This trip is pretty much perfect for that.”

Avirgan and Sarah Park, 17 - fellow students at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington - are among 35 American students setting out Friday for a week in Cuba, where they plan to enjoy the beaches, ride bikes, work in the fields, see Cubans and communism up close and personal.

The trip - sponsored by the San Francisco-based Freedom to Travel Campaign - is the group’s latest act of civil disobedience in a continuing effort to ease U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba. The group argues that what amounts to a travel ban for most Americans is arbitrary, onerous and in violation of the First Amendment.

The ban is the law. The decades-old Trading with the Enemy Act and the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 bar all Americans from spending money in Cuba except for pre-approved persons such as diplomats and journalists. All others - including students and academics - must apply for a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Which the students refuse to do.

The students’ challenge - cheered on by liberal parents who predominate at Sidwell - could produce an uncomfortable moment at the PTA for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But it also spotlights a problem for the Oval Office: How can the president continue to promote greater people-topeople contact, yet forbid widespread travel between the countries?

Richard Newcomb, director of the Treasury Department’s office of foreign assets control, sent the students a warning last week that their “open defiance” of U.S. law could land them in the slammer for 10 years. A Treasury spokesman called Newcomb’s letter routine.

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