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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. Gómez laughed at first when U.S. authorities refused his travel visa.
“What am I? A Taliban?” the Havana piano technician said.
Then it sank in. He can never again travel to the United States unless the U.S. 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 Gomez’s. “It is absurd to think that he represents a threat to U.S. security.”
However strange the visa denial may seem, it is an everyday occurrence in the rarified 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 such as Gómez, 49, the 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. 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 has won six Latin Grammies.
U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Cal, a ranking member of the International Relations Committee, tried to persuade officials to let Gómez go, but was told he was a “potential foreign policy concern.”
U.S. officials stamped 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 Gómez’s visa denial. But they said some Cubans didn’t obtain visas because they don’t apply in time. New homeland security requirements require in-depth screening of applicants and 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. “I don’t mind telling you we do that. It’s clear.”
Without referring specifically to the Gómez case, the official said Washington rejected 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. In Dallas, piano tuners began setting up June 1 for the Piano Technicians Guild convention, which ran through July 6. About 700 guild members from countries as far as Germany, China and Japan were expected to attend.
Guild Executive Director Barbara Cassaday said she couldn’t do much to help Gomez. “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, California. “It sounds silly, you have to admit.”
Bruce Clark, a technician for Mason & Hamlin in New Hampshire, said he understood 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 Gomez, 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,” 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’s attended piano tuning conventions in the United States in the past and he wants to return. Now though, he has 212F stamped on his passport and he doubts he’ll be back.
“I’m just a tuner. But with this in my passport, I won’t even be able to go to Haiti.” June 2009