High price for Cuban holiday

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The Independent Online
Washington - European sun-seekers have been flocking to Cuba's beaches for years but, Cold War or no Cold War, for Americans the Caribbean island remains a dangerous tourist destination, writes John Carlin.

This is not on account of any threat from President Fidel Castro's Communist regime but because the US government still considers that American citizens who travel to Cuba violate the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, a crime punishable by imprisonment.

A group of 34 American high school and university students, two of whom attend the same Washington private school as President Bill Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, intend to flout the law and take off on a week's holiday to Cuba tomorrow, travelling via Mexico. The US Treasury Department got wind of their plans and sent them a letter last week threatening them with 10 years in jail and $250,000 (pounds 160,000) fines if they went ahead with the trip.

So the students, who range in age from 14 to 22, wrote to President Clinton. "Dear Mr President," they wrote. "We don't want to go to jail or be fined, but we have to stand up against unjust laws, just like Martin Luther King stood up against segregation laws in the South."

The segregation analogy does not seem all that far off the mark. For among America's remaining international bugbears, Cuba is still singled out for special discrimination. Americans remain entitled by law to travel to North Korea and Iran, each identified by Washington as dangerous tyrannies. Cuba, a little tropical dictatorship with a bankrupt economy, appears to exercise a hold on the American imagination founded more on history's haunting reminiscences than on present reality. "It's America's neurological obsession," as a frustrated US diplomat once remarked.

The travel ban to Cuba was introduced in 1963, lifted by President Carter in 1977, reimposed by President Reagan in 1982.

Sarah Park, a 16-year-old schoolmate of Chelsea Clinton, said she had no intention of bowing to government threats. "It's unfathomable," she told the Washington Post. "I couldn't imagine being arrested for travelling somewhere. And anyway, my friends all think it's cool."