Bay of Pianos

It didn’t take long for Benjamin Treuhaft, an anti-Cuban-embargo activist, to make his presence felt in New York City. Shortly after moving here this spring from the Bay Area, he armed himself with a hacksaw, climbed a lamppost at Lexington Avenue and 38th Street, and chopped down the BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE CORNER street sign. “It embarrasses me that the Cuban diplomats have to look at that insulting thing,” says Treuhaft, who felt the sign’s tribute to the anti-Castro pilots was offensive to staff members of the Cuban United Nations mission across the street.

Treuhaft, the 50-year-old son of the late Jessica Mitford – author of The American Way of Death and once a devoted Communist Party member – has evidently been imbued with his mother’s anti-establishment spirit. For the most part, the piano tuner by trade devotes his energy to more constructive pursuits than sign vandalism. Since 1995, Treuhaft has been thumbing his nose at the Cuban embargo by sending used pianos to the island, which he says is badly in need of new instruments and parts. “Because of the embargo, almost every piano in Cuba has something that needs fixing,” says Treuhaft, smoking a Cuban cigar in his spacious East Village two-bedroom. “There is also a very nasty local termite down there that infects about 70 percent of all pianos. I don’t think Cuban music should have to suffer because of politics.”

So far, Treuhaft’s organization, Send a Piana to Havana, has managed to get 60 pianos, either donated or purchased with raised money, into the communist country via Canada and Mexico. (Contributors include actor Peter Coyote and Maya Angelou.) Most instruments go to schools or are awarded as prizes to gifted students. In recent years, Treuhaft has also organized two “International Tuners’ Brigades,” groups of piano tuners from the U.S. who travel to Cuba to get pianos in shape for concert performances and music schools.

To make his position on Cuba’s embargo clear, Treuhaft sent Jesse Helms a WISH YOU WERE HERE postcard from Havana’s José Martí Airport and sent the anti-Castro senator Robert Torricelli a photo of himself dressed as a piano, giving the finger to the U.S. Interests Section headquarters in Havana, the U.S. quasi embassy. Although Treuhaft obtained licenses to transport the pianos, he was fined $10,000 two years ago by the Treasury Department, which claimed he had traveled and worked illegally in Cuba. “I would love to hear a judge explain why tuning a piano is illegal,” says Treuhaft, who says Treasury offered to reduce the penalty to $3,500, which he still refuses to pay. A hearing is pending.

New Yorkers can no doubt expect more publicity stunts from Treuhaft on behalf of his cause. “When I got fined the $10,000, my mother said, ‘Oh, Ben, how could you?’” he reminisces fondly. “But then, about a week later, when it was all over the press, she said, ‘Oh, Ben, brilliant.’”

Bay of Pianos