Ben Treuhaft
Jose Goitia  /  AP file
Ben Treuhaft is seen in this 1996 file photo adjusting a piano at Havana's National Music School.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 2/10/2004 12:47:24 PM ET 2004-02-10T17:47:24

Ben Treuhaft thinks the U.S. Treasury Department got its wires crossed.

Last week, the New York piano tuner received a Treasury license to donate a pair of crutches and a walker to a Havana music conservatory instead of a renewal of his 8-year license to ship used pianos, musical instruments and piano parts.

Was it some sort of a mistake, a bureaucratic mix-up? Treuhaft doubts it.

“Someone in the Bush administration is mad at us. Somebody decided we weren’t with their program on Cuba so they decided to shut us down.”

After the Cuban government jailed 75 dissidents last March, President Bush announced a harder line against the island.

In Treuhaft's case, the Commerce Department explained the license was rejected "upon the advise of the Department of State."

In a letter dated Monday, Commerce said that piano donations are "not consistent with U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba." The only exceptions to this policy from this point on will be food, medicine and medical supplies.

"Suddenly they've noticed that pianos aren't food and medicine--after eight years," Treuhaft said.

License to export pianos
In 1995, Treuhaft set up a non-profit “Send a Piana to Havana” and obtained a Treasury license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to export pianos to the island’s 90 music schools.  Under that authorization, the group collected and shipped 237 pianos and a ton of spare parts to the island.

The bulk of the instruments are played in classrooms across the island, including at Havana’s National Music School, a haven for the island’s most talented teenagers; others were gifts to musicians too poor to buy their own. Just last week the music school unpacked another 27 of Treuhaft’s pianos.

This latest shipment is the one that could get him in trouble.

Treuhaft explained the group became annoyed after waiting months for OFAC to renew its license after being told it was imminent.

It finally sent off the donation without the U.S. administration’s seal of approval. “To have waited any longer,” Treuhaft said, “would have insulted the memory of Newton Hunt.”

Hunt was a partially sighted piano tuner from New Jersey who died last year and left his entire workshop to his Cuban counterparts.

Of particular value were his specially fitted tools for blind tuners. Cuba has many and they operate using techniques the Russians showed them 32 years ago.

Under the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba started by the Kennedy White House 40 years ago, all travel and exports, including donations, to the communist island must be licensed. Violators face fines up to $75,000.

Previous violations
If federal authorities decide Treuhaft violated the “Trading with the Enemy Act,” it won’t be the first time he’ll find himself in trouble with the U.S. government.

He traveled to Cuba without Treasury’s permission in 1994 to personally tune dozens of antique pianos suffering from age, the sea air and tropical termites.

OFAC sought to fine him $10,000, which he refused to pay. Instead, he and his tools took another trip south to tune more Cuban pianos.

Treasury then threatened to increase the fines to $1.3 million.

“It’s laughable,” he said, noting that tuning pianos for 37 years has not made him a rich man. However, if Treasury decided to prosecute, he risks losing the small business he built, Manhattan’s “Underwater Piano Shop.”

Although the penalty was eventually reduced to $3,500, Treuhaft still refuses to accept the punishment.  “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

He wants his day in court, he said, to hear a judge explain, “exactly how tuning a piano aids America’s enemies.”

Out of tune
With or without the license, Treuhaft vows to continue his musical mission — even if he has to break the U.S. trade embargo to do so. “I can’t believe anyone can get in trouble for smuggling pianos to these kids.”

Treuhaft says he’s not trying to be rebellious just “trying to get these pianos down to these kids who deserve working instruments. I do want the embargo to end. Maybe you could say I’m cantankerous.”

He’s also persistent and someone with a quirky sense of humor.

“I'm a piano tuner who got caught up in Cuba’s piano crisis and, in helping out, found I had to circumnavigate the ridiculous embargo.”

Treuhaft once took a picture of himself dressed up as a piano in front of the American Mission in Cuba and sent it to former Sen. Robert Torricelli after the lawmaker accused the tuners of propping up the Castro regime. And Republican Senator Jesse Helms, a strong advocate of the embargo, has reportedly received dozens of “Wish you were here” postcards mailed from the Havana airport.

Almost every day Treuhaft calls the Treasury office looking for information to appeal their decision. “I want to know why they consider pianos subversive.”

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