El dueño de un taller
de piano de Nueva York protesta contra el embargo comercial a Cuba
Una historia de solidaridad y amor:
Hay activistas que se encadenan, otros que gritan consignas y otros
que como Benjamin Treuhaft protestan contra el embargo comercial
estadounidense a Cuba afinando pianos.
Treuhaft, dueño de un pequeño taller de pianos en
Nueva York, aterrizó hace unos días en La Habana con
más de 100 kilos de herramientas, cuerdas y otros repuestos
en sus maletas para afinar los pianos cubanos maltratados por la
humedad del trópico y las termitas.
"En Estados Unidos la gente tira los pianos a la basura cuando
ya no los usa," dijo a Reuters mientras afinaba las cuerdas
de un descascarado Story & Clark modelo Baby Grand de 1934 donado
por una señora de Concord, California y que él trajo
a Cuba en 1998.
"Este, por ejemplo, es un piano por el que en Estados Unidos
no te habrían dado ni un centavo y sin embargo aquí
ha cambiado las vidas de muchas personas," comentó.
Desde que fundó en 1995 la organización no gubernamental
"Send a Piana to Havana" (Envía un Piano a La Habana),
Treuhaft ha mandado 237 instrumentos a la isla de gobierno comunista.
Treuhaft y la "brigada" de 14 afinadores y activistas
estadounidenses que fueron con él, violaron conscientemente
las restricciones de viaje impuestas por el gobierno de Estados
Unidos como parte de su bloqueo de más de cuatro décadas
contra la isla de gobierno comunista.
"Estamos haciendo este acto de desobediencia civil para reírnos
de las restricciones de viaje," dijo Treuhaft, de 58 años,
hijo de la famosa activista de los derechos civiles Jessica Mitford.
"Ben el afinador," como lo conocen en La Habana, ha visitado
la isla más de 15 veces durante la última década.
Esta vez llegó con activistas de Boston, Nueva York, San
Francisco, Atlanta, New Hampshire y otros rincones de Estados Unidos.
PIANOS VS EMBARGO
Antes de viajar a Cuba, Treuhaft recibió una carta del Departamento
del Tesoro advirtiéndole que se exponía a penas de
hasta 10 años de prisión y multas de entre 250.000
y un millón de dólares.
"Intentaron cerrarnos en el 2002 cuando el presidente George
W. Bush comenzó con las restricciones y mi abogado envió
una carta los departamentos de Estado y del Tesoro explicándoles
que los pianos no representan una amenaza para la seguridad nacional
de Estados Unidos," dijo en La Habana.
La Oficina de Control de Activos del Departamento del Tesoro lo
ha multado en el pasado por más de 10.000 dólares
que Treuhaft se niega a pagar.
El afinador cree que Washington mantiene el embargo decretado en
1962 para seducir a los votantes cubanoestadounidenses de Florida.
"Estoy cansado de eso. Ese es mi mensaje político,"
Treuhaft dijo que sean cual sean las nuevas medidas contra Cuba
que anunciará a fines de mayo la administración Bush,
él continuará viajando a la isla para llevar pianos
"Hace unos meses me contaron que una pianista cubana dedicó
en Noruega un concierto a "Send a Piana to Havana." Me
alucinó. Dijo que sin nosotros jamás hubiera tenido
una oportunidad de desarrollarse," comentó.
Julia Díaz, representante de la ONG en Cuba, dice que en
todas las escuelas de música de la isla hay un piano donado
La situación económica en Cuba ha mejorado desde
que el afinador aterrizó por primera vez en La Habana en
1993, en medio de la brutal crisis económica provocada por
la desaparición de la Unión Soviética.
Y aunque los cubanos dicen que su ayuda sigue siendo crucial, la
llegada de pianos importados de China, actual aliado comercial de
Cuba, llevó a Treuhaft a concentrarse en nuevos proyectos.
El activista quiere crear ahora una empresa mixta para fabricar
cuerdas de piano que piensa bautizar "Helms-Treuhaft Piano
Bass String Company" en un improbable homenaje al ex senador
republicano Jesse Helms, uno de los políticos que endureció
El Departamento del Tesoro ya le advirtió que está
The Mirror Piano
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Times photos: John Pendygraft
Once, these 88 keys plinked out the dreams of a poor American family.
Can they do the same for a young music student in Cuba?
IN A NOSTALGIC KEY: Jimmy Anderson’s beloved piano sat mostly
unused after his death in 1988. Having just uncovered it, Anderson’s
daughter Sandy Garcia plays St. Louis Blues, a tune he taught her.
Sandy Garcia steps into her dark garage and flicks on the overhead
light. She squeezes past a riding lawn mower and stacks of books
and stops at a bulky object covered in white plastic.
She pushes the covering aside. There, coated with dust and chewed
by insects, but still as solid as the man who played it, is her
father's beloved upright piano. It still has the mirror on the front
panel where he left it and a single broken key, like a chipped tooth
in an otherwise perfect smile. Garcia taps the keys and the piano
twinkles sadly, out of tune.
Brian Zaldivar, 13, of Guanabacoa, Cuba, plays a piano donated to
young Cuban music students by Sandy Garcia of Tampa. He's performing
a danza by a Cuban composer.
The mirror piano has stood mostly unused in her Lutz garage since
her father, James Edward "Jimmy" Anderson, died in 1988.
Now she has a decision to make.
In a few weeks, a New York piano tuner turned political activist
plans to ship 48 pianos from Port Manatee to Cuba. The idea is to
buck the U.S. embargo against Cuba and support the island's young
musicians, who are rich in talent but lacking in many other things,
including decent pianos.
A friend told Garcia about the project, and she has been thinking
about it since. Should she give away the piano? It had meant so
much to her family. Her father had acquired it years ago in Buffalo,
N.Y. He cleaned buses and the floors of auto shops by day and earned
extra money playing night gigs in Canada, where black bands were
Working the two jobs always left her father exhausted, Garcia says.
"But when he played" -- she taps her foot and wiggles
her fingers across an imaginary keyboard -- "he'd be very animated."
Weekend afternoons at home, Anderson held jam sessions around the
piano. He, and sometimes his band, played the music of Charlie Parker,
Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald. The children would pile on the couch
as drums, bass, piano, marimba and sometimes trumpet blasted around
"They took up practically all the space in the small living
room, so we sat and listened rather than danced around. It was pretty
loud and sort of thrilling," Garcia remembers.
Today, Garcia, 62, is a professor of interdisciplinary arts and
sciences at the University of South Florida. Her brother, a Fulbright
Scholar in music, and sister had been among the first black students
accepted at Stanford University. From humble beginnings, where good
grades were rewarded with dimes and quarters, the family had come
"Music played a very big role in our lives, and as I think
back, I realize what an influence my dad was on all of us,"
Can she part with the piano? With most of the family having long
since died, the decision rests with her.
Someone has given her a video about the project. She returns to
the house and pops it into the VCR.
Her screen fills with images of young Cuban students banging on
crumbling pianos. The narration says they practice hours at a time,
some having traveled miles by bus or bicycle to get to their lesson.
Watching, Garcia puts her hand to her heart. The students awaken
the memory of her father's dedication and sacrifices.
"It's chilling," she says, leaning forward in her chair.
"There are so many parallels."
The piano, she decides, must go.
"I just know," she says later, "that some kid is
going to be playing this down there. I can just hear it now."
A JOURNEY BEGINS: W.N. Kirkconnell, left, and Ben Treuhaft, right,
with the help of two others, heave the mirror piano aboard the trailer
that will take it to Port Manatee.
Shipping a dream to Cuba
EN ROUTE: Ben Treuhaft, who heads the program Send a Piana to Havana,
fills in the time waiting at a train crossing by playing a bit of
Ben Treuhaft jumps out of the Ford Explorer in Garcia's driveway.
"Cut the other way," he calls to the driver. Garcia,
away at a conference, left instructions with a neighbor to open
the garage door. "Come back 5 more feet. Stop there!"
The piano tuner heads straight to the mirror piano. He plays some
"Well," he says with a grin. "We need a lot of pianos
Treuhaft, bulky in jeans, Birkenstocks and a bandana, is responsible
for getting them there.
Treuhaft, 54, calls himself a "red-diaper baby," the
son of two prominent leftists from Oakland, Calif. -- a civil rights
lawyer and a muckraking British author whose aristocratic family
disowned her for marrying a Jewish-American Communist.
Treuhaft bucked the family's expectations by dropping out of St.
John's College. Instead of reading 100 Great Books -- "I think
I read one" -- he hitchhiked to New York and became a piano
He first went to Cuba in 1993 to flout the U.S. trade and travel
embargo, now four decades old. He was bowled over by the talent
of young Cuban students who struggled to make music on pianos that
had been chewed apart by termites and salt air.
All of Cuba's students in more than five dozen music schools must
play the piano before taking up other instruments, a rule that exacerbates
the shortage of pianos. Few families own pianos. They rely on the
Returning to the states, Treuhaft started plucking pianos from
the attics of friends and clients.
Since 1995, Treuhaft's project, Send a Piana to Havana, has shipped
160 used American pianos to Cuba, through Mexico and Canada. The
program has lived up to its flamboyant name. Once, Treuhaft was
briefly detained in the San Francisco airport while dressed as a
wooden piano, trying to argue that he planned to travel to Cuba
as a musical instrument, not as a U.S. citizen.
The government threatened him with $10,000 fines for "trading
with the enemy." Later, the Treasury Department granted him
a humanitarian license through which to send the donated pianos.
The shipment with the mirror piano on it will be his biggest yet
-- and the first directly sent from the United States. Forty-eight
donated pianos, collected from donors across the country, are scheduled
to leave Port Manatee aboard a 110-foot sailboat in a few days.
With his flotilla of ivory keys, Treuhaft wants to barrel through
"We are trying to explain to Cuban-Americans (in Florida)
that shipping pianos wouldn't be so bad," he says.
Garcia has agreed to donate the piano and her father's marimba.
Under a blistering sun, Treuhaft and a helper heave, push and sweat.
They tilt the piano off a dolly onto the trailer behind the Explorer,
wrap the marimba in some blankets in the van and close the garage
The group makes a slow right turn out of the driveway, and the
wobbling mirror piano glides away.
Wrath of the sea
It's late May and the pianos are ready to go, but no one has heard
from the ship. It's four days late getting to Port Manatee from
St. Maarten in the Caribbean.
After leaving the pianos in storage in Florida, Treuhaft returned
to New York and is now preparing to fly to Havana.
"I heard there has been a storm," he says by phone.
When the Avontuur -- a 1917 sailboat with two main masts and nine
sails -- finally trudges into Port Manatee, Capt. Paul Wahlen and
his three-person crew have a harrowing story to tell.
First, the currents in the Florida Straits turned against them.
Wahlen, a 61-year-old Dutch seaman who has been plying the Caribbean
for 20 years, tried steering a new course.
Then the hapless ship sailed right into the teeth of a fierce storm.
The captain, pleasant by day, descended on his crew, white hair
flowing and eyes ablaze.
"On deck, NOW, on deck, NOW!" Wahlen screamed into the
cramped sleeping quarters.
The boat needed to change course or it would be torn apart by a
"The bow of the ship, where our quarters were, would rear
up in a swell, going up as high as 25 feet and then come crashing
down," filmmaker Joe Grant, 72, says. He and his cameraman
were on board as part of a team making a documentary about the piano
"It became so rough, so much pitching and rolling and crashing
that (the cook) was convinced we had been washed overboard,"
The captain barked orders as the two men scrambled up and down
the rigging while he worked the sails, cussing and running on deck
in his Speedo.
As the journey grew from its intended eight days to 12, from 1,300
miles to 1,700 miles, they ran out of food. Grant survived on garlic
and onion sandwiches. The others lived on instant coffee, bread
and green tea.
"This trip was an education," Grant says, "and a
Now the Avontuur rests snugly against a seawall at the port. A
yellow Ryder truck sits next to it on land, holding 20 pianos from
California. The mirror piano is in storage nearby, where Treuhaft
Capt. Wahlen is sipping a Smalta malt vitamin drink, getting ready
to load the pianos with a massive 1.5-ton crane hovering above his
head. Beneath him yawns a 9-foot-deep rusty cargo hold, stretching
120 cubic meters. A limp cotton shirt sticks to his thin frame and
smudged shorts now cover the Speedo. His face is creased and his
calves are round as grapefruit.
Treuhaft approached Wahlen last year while the seaman was unloading
lumber from Surinam in Massachusetts. He asked him if he could handle
'I said, 'Yeah, why not?' That's how it goes." Getting pianos
to Cuba sounded like an interesting adventure.
About noon, Wahlen cranks up the crane. Soon it hoists the mirror
piano, twirling it round and round. White rays blink off the mirror.
Then slowly, the piano dips and disappears.
No dancing allowed
Outside the one-story airport terminal, the fierce Cuban sun bores
down on Treuhaft's head. Smiling government officials push through
weeping reunited families to greet him. They usher him and his group
past a 1950s cherry-red Oldsmobile and boxy Russian Ladas to an
It jostles across the sprawling city, past bruised-looking buildings,
toward Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), National School of Art, the
base of Treuhaft's piano project.
"The teachers there can teach you to salsa dance," the
tour guide on the bus says with a sly grin.
"I'm sorry," Treuhaft wisecracks, "but the State
Department says we cannot."
The landscape of the new home country for the mirror piano unfolds
before the tuners. Political billboards on buildings and hillsides
remind patriots: "We will continue with the strength and ideas
of 42 years," reads one, referring to the 1959 revolution.
The bus stops near ENA, which offers rigorous training in music,
ballet, theater and dance for children up to age 18. It's one of
64 art schools in Cuba. As with all schools, including college and
postgraduate education, tuition is free.
Treuhaft and his group stop in a restaurant near ENA to meet with
school and government officials. Rita Olga Martinez, of the Institute
for the Friendship of Peoples, the government's liaison with international
groups, welcomes everyone with big grins.
"It's brave, challenging the blockade," she says. "We
all know that American officials have taken more weighted measures
"Sssssssssssssssss," Treuhaft hisses. The bureaucrats
smile and continue.
"So we applaud much more your desire to keep this project,"
In the next two weeks, as Treuhaft traverses the countryside tuning
pianos, the bureaucrats who seemed so helpful will try to stick
him with several thousand dollars in unforeseen fees.
A broken Steinway
The Avontuur reaches Havana a day after Treuhaft. This time around,
the crew sails under billowing sails pressed white like pillows
against the endless blue sky.
As the ship sails into Havana Bay, the tall hotels give way to
colonial facades along the famous Malecon seafront drive. Building
colors bleed into one another in vibrant shades of lemon, rose and
The Avontuur docks about 3 p.m. Treuhaft has convinced officials
not to store the pianos in musty warehouses. Instead, half of the
pianos will be taken to ENA, the other half to a school in Guanabacoa.
About two-dozen men in string T-shirts and caps descend on the
ship with their crane. Treuhaft, arriving late, looks nervous as
"It's a little dicey," he says.
The crane swings the pianos to the ground. A forklift wobbles with
them to one of two waiting trucks, at one point dropping a Steinway
on its face, cracking its frame but leaving its insides intact.
Now the mirror piano is brought up. It's lowered onto the forklift
and carried to the second truck, which will take it to Guanabacoa.
After a few more pianos are squeezed in behind it, workers slam
the doors and climb inside.
They pull out, leaving behind Treuhaft and the Avontuur in a haze
of diesel smoke. After many years, the mirror piano will soon be
in the hands of a real musician.
MUSICAL STRAINS: Plenty of muscle power goes into unloading the
mirror piano outside the Escuela de Musica Guillermo Tomas, the
town music school in Guanabacoa, Cuba.
At the music school
In late afternoon, the truck with the mirror piano drives east
of the harbor. Plumes of black smoke rise above Havana's main electricity-generating
plant and petrochemical factory.
The truck lumbers over railroad tracks, past horse-drawn buggies
and bicycles. A steel sign welcomes it to Guanabacoa.
Guanabacoa (gwan-a-ba-CO-a) is a small municipality about 12 miles
outside Havana, developed during colonial days as a major landing
site for slaves.
A strong Afro-Cuban culture remains. Guanabacoa is the heart of
the island's santeria, or saint worship, the fusion of Catholicism
with the religion of the West African Yoruba ethnic group.
The truck stops in front of a white stone building. It's the town's
music school, Escuela de Musica Guillermo Tomas. Outside, children
in the street kick a ball between knee-high posts.
Under a pink sky at dusk, six men start unloading. No crane, no
forklift, just muscle.
"Tranquilo, tranquilo, tranquilo," they call. Easy, easy,
They push the mirror piano out, lower it and carry it through the
massive brown doors into the empty school. A bust of Jose Marti
watches over the entrance. Workers wheel the piano across the tile
floors, past a columned courtyard and into a side room with tall
ceilings. In the back are rows of drum kits, congas and dark brown
The school needs this piano, says assistant administrator Ana Glez-Fumes
in tank top and shorts, scribbling down brand names and serial numbers.
Three hundred students -- ages 8 to 18 -- share fewer than 40 pianos.
Students come to the school at night and on weekends to steal a
few hours of practice.
'Seeing' with his ears
For a week the mirror piano sits in storage at the school. In early
June, Jorge Luis Garrido, 54, rests his cane on top of it and takes
the boards off the front. With smudged fingers, he hits keys and
turns a tuning wrench on the pins. He stares up into space, listening.
Garrido is blind, like most of the few piano tuners left in Cuba.
The government held piano-tuning classes in the late 1960s and
early 1970s for about 50 blind people, thinking their sense of hearing
was especially strong, an issue long debated by scientists. But
fewer than 10 are still living. That means Garrido stays busy, working
at the various music schools around Havana.
"This piano is very old, the wood is good," Garrido says,
two hours into tuning the mirror piano. "When pianos are older,
the sound is brilliant."
Garrido cranks the pins and feels his way underneath the piano
to realign the levers for the pedals. All he needs to fix the piano,
he says tapping his head, is right here.
"For the moment, this piano doesn't need anything," he
says. "The piano will last a lifetime."
BUILDING DREAMS: Brian Zaldivar Aldama, 13, a resident of Guanabacoa
and an avid piano student, daydreams at a neighbor’s home.
His life revolves around his music, and he hopes someday to be a
The mirror piano will not belong to any single student at the Escuela
de Musica Guillermo Tomas. It will belong, instead, to all of the
students -- gifted young people for whom music holds the promise
of a better life, as it did for Jimmy Anderson and his family.
One of those promising students is Brian Zaldivar Aldama. He's
13 and wears glasses, and his family's fortunes rest squarely on
his narrow shoulders.
Brian lives several narrow streets away from the school, on a bustling
road with lots of traffic -- trucks, bicycles, polished Buicks and
women in Spandex. His house is square and has a tin door.
His mother is Violeta Aldama, 48. His father is a seaman, gone
nine months of the year, and a santeria priest. Brian wears the
green-yellow beads of the deity Orula that his father left him for
Brian first touched ivory keys at age 5 while visiting a cousin
who had a piano. He played all day and had to be pulled off crying
when it was time to go home.
"I sat down and played, and I liked the way it sounded,"
he says on a June weekend afternoon inside the four-room home of
high ceilings and flaking walls. "I played on it the whole
time. I didn't want to be away from it."
He pestered his mother to go back. She would wake up early to leave
the house by 7 a.m. to take Brian to his cousin's house to play.
"I would come back to go to work by 8," says his mother.
"I would work all day and go back to get him and then go home."
They did this for two years until she quit her job as an engineer
for the Cuban air force. She hoped that if he practiced enough,
he would pass the test required to gain entrance into a music school.
Students who graduate from the schools can get good jobs as teachers,
work with the national symphony or even tour outside of Cuba. Later,
Aldama and her husband bought Brian a used piano for $250 -- about
two years' salary.
"We sold our refrigerator to buy it," she says. "Since
there weren't enough pianos at the school and I wanted him to practice,
we sold it." They later saved up for a smaller icebox.
The bedroom concert
Brian sleeps next to his piano. The pale brown upright is propped
against the wall in his room next to his bed. When he plays, 3-year-old
Michael, the family dachshund, curls up at his feet and goes to
"If I was in the desert," he says, "and all I had
was a piano, I'd be happy."
When Brian was 7 years old, he caught the attention of the instructor
of famous Cuban jazz pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdez. She
tutored the boy for free and passed him to another teacher when
she moved. He now travels by bus with his mother twice a week for
lessons at the Higher Institute of Art. At home, he practices four
hours a day. Fat music books of Beethoven and Mozart prop him up
on the bench.
Playing for visitors, he sways back and forth, elegantly pulling
from the tinny keys a powerful Cuban danza and a playful Bach polifonia.
He hopes someday to support his father and his mother with his music.
But before he begins each song, he closes his eyes, and the world
around him disappears.
UNHEARD MELODIES: Even when Brian walks down his town’s streets
his fingers pick out notes on an imaginary piano.
The expected Miami media and controversy never materialized. Treuhaft
ends the trip frustrated and resigned to the idea that he alone
cannot end the embargo
But to the school and the students in Guanabacoa, the outcome couldn't
have been better.
On a June school day, the principal at the school calls Brian to
test the mirror piano. It is in tune now, and she wants a prized
student to give a demonstration.
He springs into the room in his uniform, white shirt and yellow
The eighth-grader sits down on the bench. Two dozen other pianos
are stacked against the walls. Rows of drums and guitars fill the
back of the room.
Brian's skinny arms rise above the keys, then pause. When his hands
alight on the keyboard, he reaches across the miles and the years
and touches a dream that mirrors his own.
-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Catherine Wos contributed
to this report.
Times photos: John Pendygraft