D.C. school board member Frank Shaffer-Corona and 10 other members of the Chicano Raza Unida Party left for Beirut last night on the first lap of a mission that they say will lead them to Tehran, where they hope to negotiate the release of Chicano hostages at the U.S. Embassy there.
Shaffer-Corona, who has been telephoning the militants holding the hostages over the past two months -- and charging those calls to the school board -- asserted, "It's time for the people to do something about this [hostage situation] themselves."
Pulling out a $1,268 Air France ticket for a New York-to-Berirut flight, Shaffer-Corona said the first lap of the trip was being paid for by the Palestinian chapter of the Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross.
It was not clear who was paying for the trip from Beirut to Tehran -- but an aide to Shaffer-Corona said he had received contributions for the fare. Initially, Shaffer-Corona had asked the school board for $300 to pay for that trip, but a majority of his colleages on the board rejected the request.
School board members have also been trying to force him to pay for $300 worth of telephone calls he made to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and charged to the school board.
But Shaffer-Corona has refused so far, asserting that he was acting "in the interest of the people of the District of Columbia" and the calls are, therefore, a legitimate school expense.
"I understand there is a lot of concern about the use of taxpayers' money for these telephone communications . . . I find it ironic there was no similar uproar over the use of taxpayers' dollars to support [Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's] regime," he said at a press conference yesterday.
Shaffer-Corona said he and others "have confirmation from Iranian officials" that they will be able to meet with Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, and the son of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But yesterday, officials at the Iranian Embassy here were unable to confirm Shaffer-Corona's claims.
A state Department spokesman said any American with a valid passport can travel as a private citizen to Tehran. The spokesman added that the State Departmet "does not have any involvement" with the Shaffer-Corona mission.
Initially, the State Department permitted Shaffer-Corona to put direct calls through to the U.S. Embassy. "He presented his reasons for wanting to call. He was concerned about members of his race who were hostages. We found his reasons to be solid. We tookhim to be a responsible member of the school board. Then things got out of hand," the spokesman said.
In January, the State Department told Shaffer-Corona to stop making the telephone calls.
Shaffer-Corona said he and the others do not yet have valid visas for entry to Iran, but that these visas would be issued in Beirut. A State Department spokesman said the last American delegation to visit the hostages in Tehran were able to enter Tehran without visas, but they encountered some difficulties.
Shaffer-Corona and the other Raza Unida members said they will try to win the release of the Chicano hostages by pointing out to the Iranians that Chicanos, like Iranians, have been "victims of the U.S. greed and imperialism."
The 10 others who will be traveling with Shaffer-Corona are representatives of the Raza Unida from New Mexico, Texas and California. Members of the Raza Unida (United Race) Party believe Chicanos of the Southwest should have political autonomy.
There are two Chicano hostages at the embassy, Marine Cpl. William Gallegos and Marine Sgt. James Michael Lopez. Shaffer-Corona said the immediate release of hostage Frederick Kupke, because he is a part Indian.
He added, however, that he sees his visit as the "beginning of a process by which all the hostages will be released."