ALA celebrates 50 years, looks to future

Fifty years may seem a short span in human history, but it’s momentous for an emigre organization. As the American Latvian Association (ALA) turned 50 recently, its leaders and members took time to look back and, more importantly, forward.

The past and present

What next? The question seems so natural at a time when Latvia is an independent and rapidly developing democracy that doesn’t directly depend on political support of emigre organizations in the West, as was the case during Soviet rule. In the last 10 years, exile communities have been confronted with the need to “reinvent” their causes, leaving some members skeptical about their future.

However, no such doubts could be heard from ALA leaders during the organization’s 50th anniversary congress April 27-29 in Arlington, Va.

ALA members agree that among the issues that will keep them as well as other Baltic-American organizations preoccupied is enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include the Baltic states.

As NATO’s 2002 Prague summit approaches, the Baltic community will devote much of its efforts to fortifying U.S. commitment to NATO enlargement. As Ints Rupners, who served as ALA chairman from 1992 to 1996, put it humorously, that will be the “last cry—last hurrah” of ALA before it turns into a typical emigre organization.

Rupners said the political work on the NATO issue should be finished in the next six months. “We have to persuade the U.S president and two thirds of Senate to vote for NATO enlargement,” Rupners said. “This is our last big political task.” After that, ALA’s main interests will be culture, schools and language, and much less the political questions, he said.

An active participant in the Joint Baltic American National Committee and a partner to the Latvian embassy in Washington, D.C., ALA is no newcomer to the battle for Baltic causes in Washington.

Current and former leaders of the organization say ALA has to be given credit for maintaining contacts with the U.S. administration and legislature, which in turn helped the United States play a role in the run-up to Latvia’s independence. “We were like thorns under the arms of the Communist bear,” ALA chairman Jānis Kukainis said in his opening speech during the congress.

“When Latvia joins the NATO, it will be to a large extent due to ALA’s efforts,” Uldis Grava, who chaired ALA from 1970 to 1972, told Latvians Online. He said the Latvian lobby has always had strong influence in the U.S. Congress.

Grava was echoed by his colleague Aristīds Lambergs. Under Lambergs’ chairmanship from 1986 to 1988, the Latvian lobby gained impressive political clout in Washington, including close relations with Reagan Administration as well as good contacts in the Congress. In fact, during the 1980s, “we were considered the second most influential lobby after Israel,” Lambergs recalled in an interview with Latvians Online. “Taking into account the relatively small number of Latvians in America, we have done a very good job,” he said.

The effective cooperation reached its peak in 1986 when seven young American Latvians were included in the high-level U.S. delegation to the Chautauqua conference in Jūrmala, which marked the perestroika thaw in the Soviet Union and provided an excellent opportunity for American Latvians to exchange information with supporters of independence in Latvia.

The future

While it’s clear that the Latvian community has to remain strong in its push for a positive NATO result, American Latvians don’t see their work ending after that.

“ALA’s goals have changed, but the organization can still be of great help to Latvia,” said Lambergs.

The Latvian community could work to attract private investments into Latvia and secure the political and financial support of the U.S. government, according to Lambergs. Former ALA chairman Valdis Pavlovskis (1988-1992) agreed that U.S. financing programs would be particularly useful.

Lambergs suggested American Latvians could also expand educational cooperation that would provide students from Latvia with more opportunities to study in the United States.

One of the most promising ways of cooperation would be active business contacts between Latvians in Latvia and their counterparts in America, said Ilgvars Spilners, ALA chairman from 1972 to 1975.

In addition, ALA could cooperate with the Rīga-based Latvian Institute in distributing information on Latvia as a nice tourist attraction and thus give boost to the country’s tourism industry, Spilners said.

Rupners said ALA would continue establishing and widening contacts with different non-governmental groups in Latvia. ALA has done quite a lot through different U.S. government agencies to help build the Latvian nongovernmental organization sector, Rupners added.

But he added that the NGO culture has yet to take root in Latvia. “You can’t learn it from books… People are still not used to it,” Rupners said. “They will get used to it, because that’s how civil society works.”

Some activists pointed out that that many prominent Latvian Americans are serving in high positions in the United States, and Latvia could use them as influential messengers to promote its interests.

Grava said Rīga should set priorities and see where and how—and for what goals—such highly devoted Latvians could be used.

Both Grava and Spilners emphasized that being Latvian and at the same time American citizens is not incompatible. “The concept of being a Latvian shouldn’t be tied to geographical borders,” Grava said.

The main future task of ALA will undoubtedly be keeping alive the Latvian language and passing the interest in Latvia over to younger generations who, in the words of Kukainis, could be the “future CEOs of General Motors or even U.S. presidents,” capable of lending great support to the country of their ancestors.

“You are not a Latvian if you don’t know the Latvian language,” Kukainis said. “We are a small nation, so we need to preserve our language and our culture. Our task is to preserve our Education Division, Saturday schools, and summer schools to teach our children Latvian and tell them about our culture.”

ALA members may be convinced that gradual assimilation is inevitable, but they are not ready to give up their efforts. During the congress, the speech of American American Youth Association President Ingrīda Erdmane may have given some hope. Erdmane spoke about the Baltic studies program at the University of Washington in Seattle, which has already proved its effectiveness in helping the younger generation learn the Latvian language.

It seems that those young people who get involved in the community activities don’t lose their liking for things Latvian. Those young American Latvians, who have returned for permanent life in Latvia, can serve as a good proof.

As Lambergs put it, “I don’t think we’re running short of (Latvian) people and I don’t think we will.”

Grava was even more confident: “This nation will definitely live on as it has proved in many other hard moments.”

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