PBLA honors Jānis Kukainis with its top award

Jānis Kukainis, a longtime Latvian-American community activist, has been honored with its top award by the World Federation of Free Latvians (Pasaules brīvo latviešu apvienība, or PBLA).

In naming Kukainis, the PBLA noted his many years of service leading Latvian organizations and his efforts to convince U.S. politicians to support Latvia’s membership in the NATO defense alliance.

As is traditional, the recipient of the PBLA Award was announced during Nov. 18 commemorations around the world.

Born in 1943 in Rīga, Kukainis arrived in the United States in 1951 and settled in Detroit, Mich. He earned a degree in engineering from the University of Cincinnati and holds master’s degrees from Tennesee State University and Michigan State University. Kukainis worked for many years for the Ford Motor Co. in Detroit. He retired in 2000.

His work with Latvian organizations began in 1973 when he became a board member of the Latvian Association of Detroit, according to a PBLA press release. Over the years, he also served on the board of the Latvian Foundation and the Latvian Center Gaŗezers, as well as worked with the Michigan Baltic Committee and the Detroit Latvian School.

Kukainis was elected chairman of the American Latvian Association in 1996, which also brought him onto the board of the PBLA. It was during this time, the PBLA said, that Kukainis was involved in an intensive and successful campaign to gain NATO membership for Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

“Convincing members of the U.S. Congress to support this idea was to be an achievement not without investment of resources and relentless work,” according to the press release. “Jānis Kukainis understood this and with his far-sighted and resolute daring began to take stock of resources and inform the Latvian community to a degree not seen before.”

Kukainis, together with Latvian embassy staff and other Baltic activists, traveled to Latvian centers throughout the United States to activate community support for NATO expansion.

From 2002-2007, Kukainis headed the PBLA. Under his leadership, the organization worked to improve cooperation with Latvian government agencies and to bolster Latvian community activity in Russia and South America.

The PBLA Award was created in 1963 to honor the work of Latvian community activists or organizations. The recipient receives a certificate and a USD 5,000 prize. Last year’s recipient was Jānis Frišvalds of the United Kingdom.

Jānis Kukainis

Jānis Kukainis of Detroit, Mich., has been named this year’s recipient of the PBLA Award. (Photo courtesy of the World Federation of Free Latvians)

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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