By Esteban Israel
HAVANA (Reuters) - Benjamin Treuhaft believes pianos are not a threat to U.S. national security even if they are played in Cuba.
Risking fines and jail for "trading with the enemy," the New York piano tuner has shipped 237 pianos to Communist-run Cuba since 1995 to replace old Soviet-made pianos damaged by tropical humidity and termites.
This week he returned to Havana with 200 lbs (100 kg) of tools and a dozen music lovers to help tune the second-hand pianos donated by Americans through his non-profit "Send a Piano to Havana" program.
The 58-year-old bandana-clad activist opposes U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba on humanitarian grounds and has been to Cuba 16 times defying a travel ban for Americans.
"I was hoping to break the embargo when I first came," Treuhaft said on Tuesday as he tuned a 1934 Story & Clark Baby Grand piano donated by a woman in Concord, California.
"There was a horrible situation for pianos. The climate, the conditions, the blockade against commerce and parts," he said.
In the mid-1990s Treuhaft was fined $3,500 for going to Cuba. That did not stop him. He refused to pay.
But things have got more complicated after the Bush administration began tightening restrictions on Cuba in 2002.
In March Treuhaft received a warning from the Treasury Department that he would face criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison and $1 million in fines if he went ahead with a plan to set up a copper bass string factory in Cuba.
Treuhaft does not care that his venture violates U.S. laws designed to undermine Cuban leader Fidel Castro's 47-year rule and bring about political change in Cuba.
He plans to call the factory the Helms-Treuhaft Piano Bass String Company, in reference to former Republican Senator Jesse Helms who sponsored a 1996 law strengthening the embargo.
"This is a holiday trip. I like to tune pianos on my holidays," Treuhaft said.