CITYWIDE — On the mantel in Jay Johnson and Rachel Sene’s Santa Monica living room is a bucket filled with $1 buttons showing the faces of five men; next to it sits a stack of letters, some more than 10 years old, written by the same men.
The Cuban Five, as the men have come to be known, were first arrested in September 1998 in Miami. Recently, the remaining three imprisoned members of the Cuban Five were freed and allowed to return to Cuba as part of President Barack Obama’s broader agreement to strengthen Cuba and United States relations.
Only a few years after these five — Gerardo Hern√°ndez, Antonio Guerrero, Ram√≥n Laba√±ino, Fernando Gonz√°lez, and Ren√© Gonz√°lez — were accused of conspiracy to commit espionage among other crimes, Johnson and Sene began monthly movie showings in their home in support of their release.
“We’ve tried to build a little local Cuba support committee,” Johnson said.
Their group, Films4Cuban5, brings in about 35 people, each paying $5 every month to see a movie tied to Cuba and learn more about what Johnson and Sene said are the injustices of the imprisonment.
“I say they are my heroes, because they were stopping terrorism in Cuba,” Sene said.
Black and white movie posters from Havana crowd their walls, with Spanish titles for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” and Fresa y chocolate, or “Srawberries and Chocolate.” Underneath, an almost-full suitcase sits on the couch. Johnson and Sene already had a trip planned to Cuba for December 20 through January 2, to visit Sene’s family. Cuban-American, Sene was the only member of her family born in the U.S.
Under former President George W. Bush, Sene said she could only travel to Cuba to visit her family every three years. Once President Obama took office, it was changed to every one year. Now, Sene said, she can take advantage of the new policies and see her family more.
“It’s been difficult,” she said. “Now we could go a little more often.”
In order to build a greater connection to Cuba in the Santa Monica area, Johnson has also placed names of famous Cuban people or images of their leaders and flag on various buildings he owns in town.
“We own different properties in the city, and we put the names of Cuban things on all of our buildings,” he said. “We’ve had a huge following here.”
The buildings read “Alta Havana” or show stenciled images of Che Guevara. Their daughter is named Clara, also the name of the city where Guevara is buried — Santa Clara.
Over the years, Johnson and Sene figure they have raised thousands of dollars from their movie nights to contribute to the International Committee to Free the Cuban Five. They said their trip this winter was made that much more exciting by the news of the prisoners’ release.
“[It’s] totally more exciting,” Sene said. “We want to try to see them when we’re down there. We are really hoping to meet them in person. They all know us from over the years.”
Sene, 82, has been working for this cause for 14 years now. She said it was surreal hearing the news.
“We are so thrilled,” she said. “I thought, ‘Are we dreaming? Is this for real?’ It was unbelievable.”
A mix of regulars and new attendees typically attend the monthly screenings, Sene said. Some didn’t know anything about the Cuban Five, she said, and so it was important for her to make the movies accessible so she could share more information with the public.
“My main thing was the Cuban Five,” she said. “I could live with the embargo, I could live with not seeing my family, I just wanted them free.”
Moving forward, the pair has not decided yet if they will continue to screen films — possibly for other causes Sene said — but definitely want to continue to defend Cuba and fight for greater normalization.
Johnson said he hopes in the future Santa Monica and Havana become sister cities, working together to create support and friendship among the communities.
“We try to build awareness in Santa Monica of justice issues in Cuba,” Johnson said.
For more information about Films4Cuban5, contactRachelJay@earthlink.netor call (310) 780-7363.