By Valerie Gritton | Farmington Daily Times
FARMINGTON Their motto is goodwill toward men and every year they travel throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico expounding New Mexico’s goodwill toward others.
This year, the New Mexico Amigos, a nonprofit organization composed of business leaders from throughout the state, organized a trip to Cuba.
“It was done legally,” said Steve Gabaldon, the Amigos president. “We went with the permission from the (United States) government.”
Actually, the group signed up to go to Cuba with the Cuba Research and Analysis Group, a stateside organization licensed to take Americans to Cuba.
Armed with goodwill and ready to go, the Amigos first traveled to Miami with Gov. Bill Richardson.
Gabaldon said it is protocol for each elected governor to make the trip with the Amigos wherever they go.
Richardson opted not to go to Cuba, but was still able to open several doors for organization members once there.
Despite the governor’s reticence, Gabaldon said this was the largest group of Amigos to travel to the far away destination, with 155 in attendance.
Gabaldon was joined in his trip by local community leaders Jerry Sandel and Bob Culpepper, among others. Each Amigo paid for the trip out of their own pocket and paid for the governor’s passage.
While in Cuba, business leaders spoke about the New Mexico school system and listened to what Cuban leaders had to say about their own schooling system.
“One friend took a bunch of school supplies. Teachers get paid $6 per month and doctors get $24 or $25. They are pretty poor people,” Culpepper said.
In Cuba, the group was also able to meet with Rafael Daus, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs director.
“He gave us a talk on U.S. and Cuban affairs,” Gabaldon said. “That was very interesting. I was told by Rafael this was the largest group ever to come from the United States.”
Gabaldon said many of the Amigos thought the trip to Cuba was more thought-provoking and educational than expected.
“That was kind of the way it struck me. I was taken with Cuba. I thought it was an attractive country,” Culpepper said. “I think most of the men there thought the embargo should be lifted.”
Because of the United States embargo, visitors to Cuba are limited to buying $100 worth of Cuban goods.
The embargo was established by the U.S. Government on July 8, 1963, under the Trading With the Enemy Act in response to hostile actions by the Cuban government and is still in effect today.
While in Cuba, the Amigos stayed in Havana at the hotel Nacional de Cuba and even made the hotel’s wall of fame with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Desi Arnaz.
Gabaldon said he believes the best opportunity for Americans to influence attitudes is by empowering citizens to be ambassadors for goodwill and peaceful change.
“I think we left a lasting impression with several Cubans,” he said.