US Piano Tuner in Havana Strikes Sour Note With Feds

Piano tuner Ben Treuhaft was scrunched over a Steinway upright when the postman slipped the fateful letter into the mailbox at his Underground Piano Shop here late last month.

The letter informed him that the United States Department of Treasury plans to fine Mr. Treuhaft $10,000 for tuning pianos in Havana.

He is also accused of breaking the US embargo of Cuba by "donating piano supplies valued in the thousands of dollars" to the country's National Museum of Music.

Treuhaft, a sometimes itinerant piano tuner, traveled to Cuba four times, bringing piano parts and pianos as a humanitarian gesture. (See "Crack in Cuban Embargo Is Wide Enough for Pianos," Monitor, Jan. 9, Page 1.) The US embargo prohibits US citizens (journalists, academics, and others are partially exempt) from spending money or working in Cuba.

"The law is stupid," Treuhaft says. "It's called the Trading With the Enemy Act, but there is no enemy. I've been prosecuted for piano tuning in Cuba."

The US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control declines to comment on Treuhaft's case, noting that the matter is still pending. A Treasury official says, however, that Treuhaft sent receipts to the US government detailing the money he spent in Cuba during his 1994 trip, when he tuned pianos and donated a suitcase full of piano parts. That's proof, the official says, that the piano tuner violated the embargo.

Treuhaft readily admits that he traveled to Cuba (via Mexico) and spent money there. He also admits he thumbed his nose at the travel ban by sending his receipts to the United States government. He calls it an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The piano tuner says he cannot afford a $10,000 fine, but suggests the government could seize some of his assets. He estimates that his 1967 Catalina Pontiac is worth about $1,500 "because it's a convertible."

LAST year Treuhaft shipped a container load of donated pianos and piano parts to Cuba. He asked for and received official permission for that effort from the US Commerce Department.

"Since one branch of government authorizes piano aid to Cuba while another wants to prosecute me for delivering same," Treuhaft says, "I do not think I should be made to pay a $10,000 fine." He has retained a lawyer and requested a hearing to dispute the fine.

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