The U.S. economic and trade embargo prohibits nearly all travel to socialist Cuba. But some Americans haven't gotten — or don't want to get — the message. New York piano tuner and political prankster Benjamin Treuhaft is among them.
On May 19, Treuhaft wound up a weeklong "tuner's holiday" on the forbidden island. "I call it a holiday, although I always tune at least 80 pianos every time I come down here," he said while bending over a 1934 Story & Clark Baby grand in a Havana Baptist Church.
Not even a warning letter from the Treasury Department last March threatening to fine his tiny Manhattan Underwater Piano Shop up to $1 million dissuaded him from coming. On the contrary, he says, the threat was the result of his "inadvertently" sending an e-mail invitation to join him on this trip to Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which oversees all contact with Cuba.
Treuhaft says President Bush's low ratings in the polls make this a good time to go after the Administration's get tough on Cuba policy, which he calls one of its "most ridiculous."
"I had had enough of George Bush's policies, and I decided to mount a little civil disobedience and I invited 1,822 people to participate. That's the number of people I have on my e-mail," Treuhaft said.
This isn't the first time OFAC has gone after Treuhaft. The agency to fine him $10,000 for "trading with the enemy" during a 1994 trip. The reason: Treuhaft broke the strict laws regulating the spending of money in Cuba by paying for hamburgers at a fast food joint and then turning himself in.
"I kept the receipt and I sent that with a peso convertible, a Cuban dollar peso, to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, turning myself in because I heard there was a reward if you turn somebody in," he said with a laugh.
Although the government reduced the fine to $3,500, Treuhaft still refuses to pay. He has asked for an administrative hearing, but so far the government has failed to schedule one.
Treuhaft has been coming to Cuba for 13 years to tune pianos that face an uphill battle against, heat, humidity, termites and even families of small mice that are fond of setting up housekeeping in them. Through his project, Send a Piano to Havana, he has brought 237 donated pianos down under a license issued by the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Missile and Nuclear Technology.
"Apparently that's the way you have to license pianos going to Cuba, and they said ours were OK," quipped Treuhaft. "As a corollary to this, the Treasury Department is supposed to license us to travel to Cuba to fix them, look after them, make sure they don't go to places they're not supposed to go."
Julia Diaz, who teaches piano tuning at Cuba's National Music School, pulled out a several-pages-long list. "Every piano that Ben has brought down appears on this list. It shows the location of each and what condition they're in. So at any time donors can see what has happened to their piano," she explained.
Apart from being of interest to the U.S. government, what happens to their instrument is of prime importance to some donors.
"In the late nineties a customer of mine, when I lived in the Bay Area, is a member of what we would call now the Christian Right or the extreme right. She said that she wasn't using hers anymore and could I could bring hers but could I try to get it into a church. So that's what we did," said Treuhaft, patting the piano in question. He added that until then the Baptist Church, where we were, hadn't had a functioning piano for decades.
Every music school on the island has at least two pianos, according to Diaz, which need constant care and tuning because of the large number of students who use them daily. At the school where she teachers, there are nearly 500 piano students and only 106 pianos — 57 of them sent down by Treuhaft. "We need so many more. Each student needs a piano in their home," she said.
Her husband, Armando Gomez has been in Canada for the past seven months training to be a master piano tuner and learning how to run a proper tuning school — another project inaugurated jointly with Treuhaft in 2002.
"We want to train everybody and get some world-class piano tuners working all around the island because there is a huge need," said Treuhaft. Eighteen students have already graduated from the school's two-year program.
Treuhaft has another project that's close to his heart. He hopes to form a joint venture with the Cuban government to produce the bass strings for pianos using Cuban copper. Unable to resist poking fun at Washington's policy on Cuba, he plans to name the business the Helms-Treuhaft Piano Bass String Company — named for retired Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who along with Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., sponsored the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, which substantially beefed up the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Treuhaft's lawyer Tom Miller, who accompanied him on this trip, says "So far, every time they try to crack down on him, it backfires." But that doesn't mean that his client can get away with it forever. "At any time they could go after him," Miller said. "He's playing with fire."
Miller was retained by Treuhaft after OFAC issued its first fine against him. But according to this highly independent piano tuner, hiring a lawyer doesn't mean you have to listen to everything he says. "He advised me what to do at every step and I did the opposite," Treuhaft said with a shrug before ducking down under the baby grand to tighten some loose screws.