No one can discount Rep. Dan Burton's dogged efforts during the past decade
to topple Fidel Castro's communist regime. He's denounced Castro's system to
a "kind of apartheid," publicized the dictator's blemished human rights
record, and fought arduously to bring a peaceful end to the last bastion of
communism in the Western Hemisphere.
So it was hardly a surprise to see the Indiana Republican, who is a member
of the House International Relations Committee, take a leading role in the
tug-of-war over six-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez last week. He
issued a subpoena ordering Elian to appear before Congress on Feb.
11, in an effort to buy time for Cuban-Americans to appeal the Clinton
administration's decision to reunite the boy with his father in Cuba.
"First and foremost, I want to make sure that Elian's rights are
protected," Burton stated. "I am issuing this subpoena to provide a measure
of legal protection while the court is considering this case."
As strong his political convictions about communism may be, Burton appears
to have another, less lofty motivation for his actions on behalf of the
Cuban-American exile community. A close look at his campaign finances by the
Indianapolis Star has revealed that Burton has raised over $30,000 from
South Florida contributors so far in his current campaign, compared to only
$4,700 -- or only one-sixth of that amount --
from backers in his home state.
Burton's Florida support dates mostly from his role in the 1995
Helms-Burton Act, which he co-authored with Jesse Helms to stiffen the
35-year embargo against Cuba. Helms-Burton penalizes foreign companies
with Cuban interests that involve land or businesses expropriated from
refugees by the Castro regime. The act also forbids government agencies
from granting Visas to executives from companies that flout the rules and
permit Cuban-Americans to sue them in American courts (though
implementation of this provision has been thwarted several times by
President Clinton) .
Helms-Burton spawned a number of trade controversies with Canada and Europe,
and ultimately has done little to speed Castro's fall. But Helms-Burton is
a politically important symbol for Cuban-Americans, and they have rewarded
Burton generously for his work. In 1996, for example, he raised $67,550 in the
sunshine state, $25,000 more than he got from his own constituents.
But this is not an isolated case. Burton also is famous for accepting
campaign contributions from donors with South Asian surnames, most of whom
are American Sikhs, whose obscure cause Burton dutifully champions year
after year. (Sikhs hope to establish their own country carved out of India.)
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Burton's fundraising
behavior is highly unusual. Congressional candidates typically raise the
"overwhelming majority" of their campaign funds -- the median figure
for the 2000 campaign to date is 83 percent -- within their own
state. But so far this election cycle, Burton has done just the opposite,
raising roughly 85 percent of his funding in South Florida. He is also unusual in
that this hasn't hurt him politically -- yet. During the 1998 elections,
fewer than one in ten winning House candidates received the majority of
their campaign funding from out-of-state donors, but Burton has not faced a
serious electoral challenge in years.
"There's always the question of influence that money buys," says Peter
Eisner, director of the Center for Public Integrity. "That money buys
access, political clout and it's a question reversing the question of whose
interests does a congressman or an elected official like Dan Burton
represent? Does he represent the people in general or does he represent
those with special interests? And to what extent is the system working if a
congressman from Indiana is operating on a different playing field? "
Burton's current drive to keep the Gonzalez boy in the U.S. is not
necessarily playing well with the public. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll
36 percent of Americans support keeping Elián in the U.S.; 56 percent
believe he should be returned to Cuba. And a Gallup poll in May placed
support for lifting the embargo against Cuba at 51 percent; and an
overwhelming 71 percent would like to see the restoration of political ties
To an increasing number of Americans, apparently, Fidel Castro seems more
like Dr. Evil of Austin Powers infamy than the menacing potentate feared by
previous generations. He's elderly, his revolution is fraying and people no
longer see him as a credible threat. Instead, Cuba is becoming an
increasingly popular tourist destination for Mojito-swilling young
Americans (who are more than willing to circumvent the current travel ban
by booking flights through Canada or Mexico to bring back a few contraband
Many in the generation that came of age at the end of the Cold War have come to
think of Cuba as a sort of Disneyland of communism, a must-visit for those who
missed the Berlin Wall Experience and are confident that Cuba's jig will be
up just as soon as the next massive wave of Western investment clears Old
Havana's sea wall. And Burton will hardly be able to claim victory if
Cuban communism collapses once Castro, who is reportedly losing his health,
dies in office -- which seems highly likely .
Beyond his antipathy for Castro and his dependence on Cuban exile funds,
Burton says he has yet another motive for advocating on behalf Elián
He explained on ABC's "This Week" that he was also compelled to intervene on
the boy's behalf because of his own troubled youth.
"I came from an abusive home. My father went to prison for it. What would
have happened if my mother had died and the courts awarded custody?" he
asked a network interviewer. "These decisions must be the right ones. It is
the right decision to delay this thing and study it for now."
Indeed, as Salon reported in 1998, Burton is the product of a broken home. But to those familiar with Burton's own widely
reported shortcomings as a father, it was hard to interpret the newfound
passion he seemed to find for parenting last week. In August, 1998, Burton
admitted in an Indianapolis Star interview that he had an illegitimate son
and had payed child support, but was unwilling to meet with the boy.
So, in the end, Burton's motives are nothing if not multi-layered. He seems
to be trying to refurbish his paternal image, while seeking
a way to keep the lucrative flow of Miami's "government in exile" cash
pouring into his campaign coffers. And, regardless of whether the public
cares or not, he's one of the last diehard anti-communists.
What his erstwhile constituents back in Indiana think of all this, and
whether it will affec t his re-election chances, won't be known until