In 1993 Berkeley California piano tuner Ben Treuhaft was introduced by Green Cities Fund founder TT Nhu to the director of Cuba’s extraordinary National Music School, where talented youth from all over the country come to study in an open and invigorating atmosphere. Ben noticed the sad state of the school’s pianos, and worked many hours rebuilding them. The director insisted on paying Ben for his help, and Ben reluctantly agreed, charging $2.
Knowing he was not supposed to “do business” in Cuba, he dutifully reported his “crime” to the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency charged with enforcing the United States’ draconian embargo against Cuba, which penalizes a U.S. Citizen for accepting “any benefit” from a Cuban with penalties of up to 10 years in jail and fines that can run into millions of dollars. Treasury was not amused, and said they would fine him $7,500 for “tuning with the enemy”.
Founder Tom Miller took on Ben’s legal defense to this and other transgressions that followed – including, over the objection of pianist/Secretary of State Condi Rice, shipping hundreds of donated pianos to Cuban churches and schools (with a license Ben somehow obtained from the Commerce Department’s Office of Missile and Nuclear Technology which stipulated they must not be used “as instruments of torture”), setting up a school for piano repair at the National Music School, and the establishment of “Ben and Jesse’s Piano String Factory” (“Jesse” referring to former Senator Jesse Helms, whose office drafted much of the embargo language). Although Ben faces millions of dollars in fines for his “felony tuning”, he has yet to pay one cent and hopes for the day when the U.S. Government will forgive these transgressions and allow Cubans and U.S. citizens to enjoy music together. Documentary filmmaker Sara Harbin’s “Sonata for Left Hand” tells the story of Ben’s project.
A step in this direction occurred when, in 2009, Green Cities founders arranged benefit concerts in Havana and New York City by noted concert pianist Idil Biret, who charmed both audiences. Meanwhile, Ben still waits for “his day in court” for accepting $2. Read more at: www.sendapiana.com.