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Crack in Cuban Embargo Is Wide Enough for Pianos

BEN TREUHAFT is a man with a mission. He's also a man with a 45-year-old German bicycle and a satchel full of piano-tuning tools. Every morning he pedals the rusting, single-gear bike to a music school in Havana to apply his tuning fork and hammer to its pianos.

He's also hammered at bureaucracies in the United States, Mexico, and Cuba to deliver a container-load of pianos to this island nation. After weeks of delay, last month Mr. Treuhaft unloaded 22 pianos, a $15,000 record collection, 1,000 pounds of piano parts, and a pump organ. They were donated by Americans as part of Treuhaft's campaign to "Send a Piana to Havana."

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Shipping the pianos required special permission from the US government to break the economic embargo of Cuba. The official form included a standard clause that the exported items will not be "used for the purpose of torture or human rights abuse."

How could pianos abuse human rights? Treuhaft quotes a journalist who wrote of his case, "None of the pianos will be painted white, have candelabra placed on them, or be played by anyone wearing a sequined jacket."

No one has ever accused Treuhaft of being too serious. He wanders the halls of Cuba's music institutions, breaking into a hopping, lurching "Soupy shuffle" every time he hears salsa music, much to the amusement of his hosts, who can't quite figure out this quixotic American.

Treuhaft also uses humor to criticize the US embargo of Cuba, a policy he considers silly from a policy standpoint and harmful to ordinary Cubans. But even he was surprised by the response of the American government to his humanitarian attempt to ship pianos to Havana.

His campaign began last year when Treuhaft visited Cuba for the second time and volunteered to tune local pianos. He had traveled there originally in 1994 as part of a group tour with a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that sponsored a "freedom to travel" campaign as a protest against the US travel ban to Cuba.

The tropical air and a wood-eating flying ant have wreaked havoc with pianos here. Cuban pianos also wear out faster, Treuhaft says, because the percussive sounds of salsa lead Cuban musicians to "pound the keys twice as hard as anyone else."

THE collapse of the Cuban economy since the demise of the Soviet Union leaves no money to import piano parts, let alone new pianos. In a meeting with officials of the Cuban Institute of Music, Treuhaft hit upon the idea of importing used pianos from the United States.

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Treuhaft returned home to Berkeley, Calif., and applied to the US Department of Commerce for an exemption from the embargo, on humanitarian grounds. He dutifully filled out the forms and talked to Washington bureaucrats. When they expressed hesitation that pianos could really be considered "humanitarian aid," Treuhaft said he understood their concern, as the Cubans might use the pianos for military purposes.

Next thing he knew, Treuhaft had to seek approval from the Commerce Department's Office of Missile and Nuclear Technology.

That office actually proved more receptive, Treuhaft says. Within a month, he had official permission.

"Had I asked to ship TOW missiles to Iraq," Treuhaft says cheerily, "they probably would have approved it right away. But pianos took a few extra weeks."

Treuhaft solicited old pianos from the Bay Area and cash donations from all over the US, Great Britain, and Canada. The donations helped buy additional pianos and pay shipping costs. A number of other piano tuners around the world offered to donate their services as well.

On Oct. 18, Treuhaft bid farewell to his truckload of pianos as they left Berkeley, destined for Tampico, Mexico, and then Cuba. On Oct. 31 he landed in Havana, expecting the shipment to arrive any moment. But Mexican authorities delayed the container for 30 days at the US border.

Then they languished on the Tampico docks for another three weeks.

The container finally arrived in Havana harbor Dec. 3, but inexplicably waited on the docks for two more weeks. Treuhaft even bicycled to the harbor and, in his broken Spanish, tried to convince the authorities of the urgency of releasing the imprisoned pianos.

Finally, on Dec. 20, a truck with the pianos chugged into Havana's Superior Art Institute, a music school located on the grounds of a former country club where then-Vice President Richard Nixon once golfed with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The golf greens are ordinary grass now, and students roam the halls where wealthy men in golf spikes once strode. In a former guest room, Treuhaft and a cadre of Cuban technicians will soon be hammering, refinishing, and tuning the pianos, including three grand pianos and 19 uprights.

Santiago Rodriguez, an official at the Cuban Institute of Music, says the pianos and parts are desperately needed.

"We have very little possibility of importing anything except items needed for survival," Mr. Rodriguez says. "At the same time, it's not enough to have only clothes and food; we must have a healthy spirit. The pianos will help maintain our culture."

AFTER their refurbishing is complete, half the pianos will be distributed to music institutions and the other half to deserving music students. The Cubans wanted all the pianos to go to institutions, Treuhaft says, but he insisted that at least some go to the next generation of musicians who have no way to practice at home.

Treuhaft hopes the institute will sponsor piano playing and composing contests, with the winners receiving upright pianos.

While standing over a concert grand piano at the former country club-cum-music school, Treuhaft philosophizes about his one-man campaign to break the Cuban embargo. The 33-year-old embargo hasn't brought down the government of Fidel Castro Ruz, Treuhaft says, and doesn't show any signs of doing so, in his opinion. Meanwhile, almost no Cuban musicians can travel to the US, and Cubans can't import even American food or medicine.

"I'm permitted to import tuning pins by the bushel and hand them directly over to the Castro government," Treuhaft says. "I'm the only businessman able to break the blockade - but only with piano parts."

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