Don't shoot the piano tuner, he's only gone to Cuba

Jessica Mitford's son stands accused of breaking the Trading With The Enemy Act for shipping pianos to Havana. His chosen form of defence is ridicule
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The Independent Online
Havana - salsa, son, jazz, disco, s! Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 31 trembling uncertainly from the open door of a run-down shack in a Havana suburb? No!

Como no! It's certainly an unfamiliar sound, especially when played by a ragged-trousered teenager with a grin as wide as the Straits of Florida.

Ludwig's stentorian chords tangle with the bells of hundreds of new Chinese "Flying Pigeon" and "Friendship" bicycles whirring along Havana's 3rd Avenue, while inside this improbable casa de musica, yellowing busts of Ludwig Van rattle and roll on top of a Bechstein upright, gnawed by termites, as Romantic Germany's finest reaches a heroic if wobbly conclusion.

"That wasn't me playing," says Ben Treuhaft, piano tuner and embargo- breaker of Berkeley, California. "I play Beethoven's sonatas a little too fast and hard for Cuban tastes, or anyone's taste for that matter. The great thing is that there are more and more Cubans wanting to play the piano. The sad thing is that it's hard to get parts and so many pianos are broken or out of tune.

"I've been running my `Send a Piana to Havana' programme for 18 months now and taken 35 pianos and $3,500-worth of parts, mostly bass strings, from the States to Cuba. Whether people want to play Beethoven or boogie, I don't mind. As a piano nut, I just want them to have the chance to learn and to enjoy playing."

Jesus Maria Gaspai is learning. "My Beethoven is not all that great just yet, but thanks for listening," he says. "I only got a chance to play him just before Christmas. Sheet music is hard to get in Cuba. Paper to print it on also. It's much simpler just to improvise with local sounds. As for pianos, they're as rare as a new car. Send us some more, if you can; we can make good use of them."

To get 35 pianos to Cuba has, you may have guessed, got Treuhaft into hot water with the US federal authorities. "I stand accused of felony piano-tuning," he says, trying hard not to laugh. Why? Because Washington imposed a trade embargo on the island in February 1962 and, 35 years on, any US citizen who buys so much as a three-peso shot of rum runs the risk of being prosecuted under the antique Trading With the Enemy Act, as if schmoozing in a bar in Old Havana were the equivalent of selling Grumman Hellcats to the Imperial Japanese Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The trade embargo is a bizarre act of pique on the part of Washington, which, stirred up by the Cuban American National Foundation, aims to topple the 38-year-old Castro regime, and dreams of turning Havana into Miami and Cuba into Florida. Despite Congress's best attempts to starve the island into submission (or insurrection against Castro), Cuba refuses to give up its independence.

"When I went out a second time recently," says Treuhaft, "the US Treasury threatened me with a fine of $1.3m and a 10-year prison sentence." For sending pianos to Cuba? "During the Gulf war, US companies were able to ship medical equipment and drugs to Iraq, but if they send them to Cuba, they are in danger of being busted and their personnel fined or imprisoned. I went out and back dressed as a piano. If they were going to arrest me when I got back home, they'd have had to have taken a cardboard upright into custody.

"When in Cuba, I send postcards from Havana's Jose Marti Airport to the state officials in charge of my case. My case worker is Ms BS "Betsy" Scatt, of the Foreign Assets Control Department of the US Treasury. Give her a call and ask her about me. [I do; but Ms Scatt, wise to Treuhaft's game, refuses to play.]

"Buying a postcard at Jose Marti Airport is a criminal offence, of course, for a US citizen, so I send them to Senator Robert Torricelli, too. Bob's the guy who penned and pushed through the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, which really tightened American screws on Cuba. It is such repressive stuff that even anti-Castro Cubans felt the need to protest. After all, they've got family and friends here. It is hard to be as nasty as Bob when your grandchildren or nephews and nieces are wasting away while Americans get fatter and fatter. Bob's address, by the way, is 728 Hart Senate Building, Washington DC 20510, if ever you want to write or look him up."

To date, Torricelli has refused to reply to Treuhaft's missives, while Ms Scatt's Treasury department has held off from nailing the piano man. Even an official "cease and desist" order and a fine of $10,000 have yet to be enforced.

Treuhaft's tactic of helping individual Cubans to play the piano while holding Washington up to ridicule is clever, if dicey; it is also very much in the spirit of his late mother, the writer and human rights activist Jessica Mitford. Ben is Jessica's son by her second husband, Bob Treuhaft, the celebrated civil rights lawyer.

A rebel to the core, Mitford was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party living and working in the States at the time she was subpoenaed by Joe McCarthy's US House Committee on Un-American Activities. Mitford's tactic was to encourage her opponents to make themselves appear ridiculous. Her son is clearly a chip off the old block. Which US federal body is going to arrest, bankrupt or imprison a liberal and extremely likeable Californian piano tuner for brightening up a few poor lives by shipping pianos to beleaguered Cuba? The first to do so will be the subject of international scorn. Treuhaft knows this, Ms Scatts knows this, and so do Robert Torricelli and Bill Clinton.

As Treuhaft wrote to Torricelli this week, "Your Cuba Democracy Act was calculated to ratchet up the embargo at Cuba's darkest hour, and I guess it was meant to cause Cubans to revolt against our old enemy [Castro]. That didn't happen. Instead, the shortages of food and medicine meant that the kids became a bit more asthmatic and the adults got skinnier than ever, and on the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba the embargo was universally condemned. Today, Fidel's market reforms are gradually solving the food problem. But the kids are still sick."

Skinny and wheezing, but eager to learn the piano, Jesus Maria Gaspia's pal Camillo Gagarin [after the Soviet cosmonaut] Arbenz is turning the pages of the Beethoven score. "I hope to go to the National Music School next year. Sure, I'd like to eat a lot more, but the piano will be my way to success."

If he makes it, will he want to make a break to Miami? "No, I'm happy to be Cuban, but I'd like to play in Paris or Madrid. Things are changing here; I'm confident I'll get the chance."

Maybe. Since Torricelli's act was successfully steamrollered through Congress, the Cuban government has signed a plethora of lucrative joint- venture deals with foreign companies world-wide. Last year the number of foreign visitors to Cuba exceeded 1 million, and now that US dollars are freely exchangeable in Havana into Cuban pesos, the economy has opened up and grown (7 per cent in 1996). This is a remarkable about-turn after the grim years from 1990 to 1994, when Cubans were reduced to living like Third World peasants in their beautiful, if crumbling, cities.

Cubans may be beginning to eat adequately, if not particularly well, and the economy is evidently growing, though anti-US feeling is still riding high on the embargoed island. But, because this is Cuba - hot, sexy, Caribbean - there is always time to forget international politics and sabre-rattling, and to dance to a little music.

While the US Treasury decides whether or not to shoot (metaphorically, of course) the piano tuner from California, Cubans salsa on. And the sound of brass, bass, guitar and rhythm sticks is underpinned by embargo-busting American pianos stroked and hammered by the likes of Jesus Maria and Camillo Gagarin. Roll over Beethoven, and tell Bill Clinton the news.