Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cuban piano tuner: "What am I? A Taliban?"

Caught in U.S.-Cuba discord
This Havana piano tuner just wanted to attend a Dallas convention, but his visa denial is part of the same old song in the nations' conflict

Published: July 2, 2003

Armando Gómez is suddenly a subversive. And only an act of God - or George Bush - will allow him to attend the piano tuners convention in Dallas this week.
Mr. Gómez laughed at first when U.S. authorities refused his travel visa.
"What am I? A Taliban?" the Havana piano technician recalled saying.
Then it sank in. He can never again travel to the United States unless the American president intervenes.
U.S. officials rejected his visa application under an obscure immigration rule giving Washington broad discretion to deny entry to foreigners, including those considered potential threats to national security or public safety.
Critics call it ridiculous.
Piano tuners want harmony - not disharmony, said Paul Larudee, an American piano technician and friend of Mr. Gómez's.
"It is ... absurd to think that he represents a threat to U.S. security," he said.
However strange the visa denial may seem, it is an everyday occurrence in the rarefied world of U.S.-Cuba relations, experts say.
America and Cuba have been at odds since 1959. They've fought with bullets and bombs in the past. But these days they battle with words and speeches, visas and red tape.
Caught in the middle are people like Mr. Gómez, the 49-year-old director of Havana's School/Workshop of Tuning and Instrument Repair. He began fixing old pianos in 1989.
Many of the country's musical instruments are falling apart. Spare parts are scarce.
In 1995, American piano tuner Benjamin Treuhaft decided to help out. He started Send a Piana to Havana, a humanitarian group, and made Mr. Gómez his partner. The group has since collected and donated 210 upright and grand pianos to Cuba.
Volunteer tuners from the United States join Mr. Treuhaft on his trips to Cuba. One of them, Takashi Yogi, said he couldn't figure out why a battered Russian piano wasn't working. Then he peered into a wooden hinge and found the problem: "Two termites were having dinner."
Seventy percent to 90 percent of Cuba's pianos are infested with termites, Mr. Gómez estimates. Others are caked in rust or mold. So they need some attention.
At first the U.S. government didn't mind that the Americans were involved. Even when the Commerce Department couldn't find a category for Mr. Treuhaft's piano shipments, officials obliged, telling him that for some bureaucratic reason, his request would have to be approved by the U.S. Office of Missile and Nuclear Technology - and it was.
Mr. Treuhaft began shipping pianos. But he soon got into trouble with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the Trading with the Enemy Act. It threatened him with a $1.3 million fine for his Cuban piano venture in 1996. Mr. Treuhaft only grew more defiant and dressed up as a 1935 Tonk upright piano during a trip to Cuba on Halloween of that year. That got him some publicity.
U.S. authorities weren't amused but offered to settle the case for $3,500. Mr. Treuhaft ignored that and continues traveling to Cuba without U.S. permission.
Clamping down
Bush administration officials have made it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba - and they've clamped down on Cubans, too.
They've rejected visas for everyone from Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba's national assembly, to Chucho Valdés, an acclaimed Cuban musician who won a Latin Grammy in 2002.
U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., a ranking member of the International Relations Committee, tried to persuade officials to let Mr. Gómez go but was told he was a "potential foreign policy concern."
U.S. officials stamped Mr. Gómez's Cuban passport "212F." That refers to subsection 212F in the Immigration and Nationality Act. It was added to the law as a presidential proclamation and allows the government to deny entry to foreigners for a variety of reasons.
Subsection 212F was first used in July 1995 to detain a high-level official of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, accused of atrocities in that country's civil war, according to Human Rights Watch.
American officials declined to offer a specific explanation for Mr. Gómez's visa denial. But they said some Cubans don't obtain visas because they don't apply in time. New homeland security requirements require in-depth screening of applicants, and Mr. Gómez didn't apply until April.
American officials say any visitor from Cuba or any of the other six nations that the United States considers to be state sponsors of terrorism must go through a tough screening process.
"We also turn people down for political reasons," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I don't mind telling you we do that. It's clear."
Without referring specifically to the Gómez case, the official said that Washington rejects some Cubans' visas in retaliation for actions by the Cuban government.
Cuban authorities, for instance, do not allow Americans to carry out "public diplomacy" - to freely express their views to ordinary people in Cuba. So U.S. officials aren't likely to let a Cuban diplomat - or Cuban government employee - do the same in the United States, the official said.
He added that "people get denied visas all the time for all sorts of reasons." And that is insignificant in the case of Cuba, he said, where the focus should be on such issues as the lack of basic freedoms and the jailing of political dissidents.
Convention reaction
In Dallas, piano tuners began setting up Tuesday for the Piano Technicians Guild convention, which runs through Sunday. About 700 guild members from countries as far as Germany, China and Japan are expected.
Guild executive director Barbara Cassaday said she can't do much to help Mr. Gómez.
"He's basically from one of those countries that is affected by heightened United States security," she said. "It's a shame that it's the reality, but it is."
Participants' views were mixed.
"It's difficult to imagine anything a piano technician might do as a threat to security," said Mark Wisner, national service manager for Pearl River Piano Group in Ontario, Calif. "It sounds silly, you have to admit."
Bruce Clark, a technician for Mason & Hamlin in New Hampshire, said he understands the State Department's reasoning.
"If I was a terrorist and wanted to come in, would I come in with a sign that said, 'terrorist'?" he asked. "I'd have to be something benign, and a piano tuner is a great disguise."
Exhibitors this week will showcase the latest on tuning, restoring and moving pianos.
"I wanted to be there," said Mr. Gómez, who is married to a fellow piano tuner, Yuly Díaz, sitting a few feet away from their living room piano and their pets - a few hamsters scurrying around in cages.
"And no," Mr. Gómez said, "the hamsters are not terrorists."
He laughs again at the thought that he's some dangerous terrorist. But it also makes him sad. He has attended piano tuning conventions in the United States in the past, and he wants to return.
Now, though, he has "212F" stamped in his passport, and he doubts he'll be back.
"I'm just a tuner," he said. "But with this in my passport, I won't even be able to go to Haiti."
Staff writer Michael Grabell in Dallas contributed to this report.

PHOTO(S): (TRACEY EATON/Staff) Armando Gómez was denied a U.S. visa under a law that gives officials broad discretion to deny entry to foreigners.

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