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Benjamin Treuhaft Floats Pianos to Cuba

A big international operation is going on on East Seventh Street. Benjamin Treuhaft is in his apartment staring at a globe with lots of pale blue oceans and pink continents and going over the plans for his next brigade to move 50 pianos into Cuba. "Any day now, our Western contingent will be driving a semi truck, an 18-wheeler, full of at least one, maybe two 40-foot containers of pianos and moving them across the country to the Harlem River Yard, where they will be taken over the border and into Canada. As we speak, 15 pianos—well, there is also a harpsichord—are waiting in Oakland in a warehouse. The truck will pick up four more pianos in Des Moines, seven in Cedar Rapids. Next stop, Champaign, Illinois—there's a guy with a piano farm there. Then New York, we got about seven pianos here, and last

Montreal, where the pianos will be loaded onto a Maltese-built freighter and shipped down to Havana, traveling at 15 knots an hour for five days and five nights without stopping."

Treuhaft, 52, is a little depressed because he had wanted the pianos, accompanied by a troop of piano tuners, to go on a flotilla of 43 boats out of Key West, but "the Cuban government thinks it would be too dangerous, as pirates would be afoot. Anti-Castro Cubans from Miami might get wind of the operation and try to scotch it. The Cubans are smarter than me. But that's because they've been guarding against this longer than I have."

In the key of life: Benjamin Treuhaft, founder of the Send a Piana to Havana International Brigade
photo: Michael Sofronski
In the key of life: Benjamin Treuhaft, founder of the Send a Piana to Havana International Brigade

On the other hand, Treuhaft's background may give him some instinct. His parents were among the past century's more famous activists, as well as former Communists—the irreverent late writer Jessica Mitford and Oakland civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft.

The 50 pianos are scheduled to sail on January 18. This is Treuhaft's fifth Send a Piana to Havana international brigade. Pianos weigh 500 to 1000 pounds, some as heavy as a polar bear, but Treuhaft, an earthy-looking piano tuner with a bit of a stomach and a bandana on his head, is determined to get them into music schools in Cuba. His mission started, he says, on the night in 1993 when he was on his first visit to Havana with a freedom-to-travel group organized by Global Exchange in San Francisco—a protest against the U.S. travel ban that prohibits American citizens from visiting Cuba except for educational or humanitarian purposes. He was having a Mojito rum drink at the Tropicoco Resort and heard a hotel pianist try to tinkle out "Strangers in the Night" and he realized how horrible the piano was. Ivories were missing, among other things. Then he found out how awful all the pianos in Cuba, the most musical of islands, were—ravaged by the salty air and the comegen, the deadly tropical termite that "likes to mate inside piano wood from cold climates like Germany." From that moment on, Treuhaft vowed he would improve the piano situation, and formed his not-for-profit group.

Speaking from a living room full of open suitcases and a lamp that "fell over and blew up," he explains, "For many years they haven't been able to get good pianos in Cuba." Pianist Ruben Gonzalez, recently featured in the documentary Buena Vista Social Club, lost his piano to termites. "There has not been a lot of money to repair or buy new pianos. Music is a big part of the Cuban education. Students have had to train on pianos without bass strings or working pedals. Russian pianos—received in trade for sugar and cigars—were not very good to begin with. The old American pianos are completely rotted out."

Treuhaft has inspired tuners from the States and abroad to go at their own expense to teach the Cubans tuning tips. "The tuners now are mostly very old," he says. "As in England, most of the tuners are blind. They figure blind people can hear better."

This trip, Send a Piana will set up its first permanent piano rebuilding shop in Havana. Treuhaft has his Send a Piana chemists working on a termite-fighting formula. "I think it's going to be paper soaked with extract of chili pepper," he says. "I don't know. It could be a spray."

In 1996, Treuhaft says he was threatened with a $10,000 fine from the U.S. Treasury Department "for donating thousands of dollars of piano supplies to Cuba's National Museum of Music and tuning Cuban pianos for one dollar." They charged that he was trading with the enemy, a violation of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba that President John F. Kennedy signed in 1962, as the story goes, only moments after he purchased 1200 Cuban cigars for himself. The Embargo prohibits virtually all commercial transactions with Cuba.

"After a year and a half of negotiation, my lawyer said they would settle for $3500. I said they should pay me, 'cause I'm the one who did all the work. They never called back."

Treuhaft is not very happy in general with U.S.-Cuba policy for "denying Cubans medicine and food in the dim hope that they will revolt against Fidel Castro, which they haven't done in 40 years and have no sign of doing today." He has been issued a Commerce Department license allowing the export of the donated pianos to Cuba; he says one of the license's conditions is that the pianos are "not to be used for reexport or for the purposes of torture."

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