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Local View: Latvia has a consul in Minnesota? Yep, it's me!

This is the view from the tower of St. Peters Church in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

What's this? When many at the lake would be hard-pressed to know where Lester Prairie is or where Litchfield is, it is a stretch to expect people around Duluth to know where Latvia is and why I am even talking about it.

John FreivaldsOK, it's one of the Baltic states, squeezed between Finland and Poland on the Baltic Sea. Latvia can be squeezed into Minnesota maybe four times. While Minnesota is at 48 north latitude, Latvia is at 56. That's some 500 miles north. Latvia has a border with Russia, and Latvians have liberated themselves from Russia twice — after being invaded twice. Latvia is part of the European Union and NATO and relies on the NATO alliance to protect it from Russia. Latvia has 2 million people, and Russia has 140 million people. Russia is 270 times larger. And nope, Latvia has no nuclear weapons.

Why am I writing about Latvia? I am now the honorary consul for Latvia in Minnesota, and my job is to promote Latvia to Minnesota businesses and potential tourists.

I was born in Latvia and came to the U.S. when migrants were welcomed as refugees. Radisson manages three hotels in Riga, Latvia's capital, and 3M is all over the place. I took the first proposal from Radisson to build a hotel in Riga in 1989 when Latvia was about to gain its freedom.

If Russia attacks Latvia, a distinct possibility, will President Donald Trump follow NATO rules and defend it? Having just returned from Latvia and Europe, it is apparent Trump is perceived there as a puppet for Vladimir Putin, Russia's' president.

Geopolitics aside, it took a bunch of people in Minnesota to help me get this honor. Alas, since I am not an A-team member, the governor did not write a recommendation for me. But the mayor of Orono, Minn., did, as did the police chief.

That done, I flew to Latvia in late June for an orientation and arrived during the Latvia Song Festival. This was a special one in that Latvia was celebrating its 100th anniversary of freedom from Russia, won in 1918 and then marred by two Russian occupations during the following 100 years.

Songs are an integral part of Latvian culture. Its songs go back 1,000 years and have 1.2 million texts; 330 melodies have been identified. The U.S. has a few songs but not a playbook where everyone knows the words. (Seriously, who knows all the words to "Home on the Range?")

This song festival drew 42,000 singers in native costumes who marched in a parade (without any fire engines!) that lasted eight and a half hours and was watched by 100,000 spectators.

In Latvia, every town has a choir with distinct costumes, and they compete with other towns to determine who's best. They call them choir wars! There's even an international festival, and Japan even sent a choir whose singers memorized the Latvian words to their songs.

Some 40 percent of Latvia's population is Russian, yet Latvia's Russian community did not send a choir. Many of the Russians in Latvia really came as forced migratory labor to work in Soviet factories that no longer exist. They basically dilute the role of Latvians in their own country. So most did not learn the language, which is a must for becoming a citizen. Yet Russia does not want these worker-migrants back, so they are in essence stateless.

And now the Latvian government says its public schools will no longer teach Russian. Putin says this is a violation of human rights and used this as one excuse to invade Crimea. Remember that? Europeans think about it every day.

So while Trump will continue to say nice things about Putin, a lone voice in Minnesota will try to tell you what's really going on. That's mine. As the honorary consul here from Latvia.

John Freivalds of Wayzata, Minn., is the author of six books. His latest is "Ramblin' Man." His website is jfapress.com.

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