¡Viva Mendelson!

Their man in Havana looks an awful lot like our man in McLean Gardens.

It only took a wrong turn in the outskirts of Havana to summon thoughts of the District’s lamentable straits.

My husband and I had gone to Cuba on a research jaunt, determined to leave D.C. behind and plumb the local culture. But as we snaked our way through some desolate streets near the seaside hamlet of Cojímar, the reminder sneaked right up on us: a huge street cut that could accommodate everything PEPCO, Verizon, and StarPower had ever sunk into K Street.

With some careful navigating, we managed our way around the trench and tried our best to suppress the very tired comparisons that D.C.-bashers draw between the nation’s capital and the Third World. Our plan to experience Cuba on its own terms proceeded just fine.

Until we visited the José Martí monument.

It wasn’t the monument itself—a massive obelisk that looks remarkably like the Washington Monument as reinterpreted by the Soviet Architectural Society. No, it was Martí himself. As we walked into the museum, past the usual book stand with the usual crappy Cuban paperbacks on CIA perfidy, my husband stopped in his tracks, squinted up at a portrait of the great man, and said, “Hey, you know? Martí looks just like Phil Mendelson.”

We stood there for a minute, contemplating the possibility. But it was true: Martí the revolutionary was the spitting image of the D.C. councilmember best known for his expertise in matters of municipal zoning policy.

The realization was a little depressing. After all, we had come all this way, navigating the embargo bureaucracy to get away from the District for a few days of international reporting, and it turned out that not only did Cuba resemble a country run by the District government, its greatest hero looks as if he had just walked out of One Judiciary Square.

Martí’s life story, alas, doesn’t exactly live on in the recent history of Washington. As Elián González and his classmates surely know by heart, Cuba’s greatest hero organized the first war of independence against Spanish rule, in 1895. He intentionally rode his horse headlong into the enemy line during his first battle, bringing the Cuban republic to birth “carrying a cadaver around its neck.” Martí also penned the poem that became the song “Guantanamera.”

Today, the guy whose portrait dominates the museum’s entryway is a hero to both Fidel Castro’s government and Castro’s Miami-based archenemies, whose U.S.-funded propaganda station is named for Martí. And now it seems that that same portrait would also draw raves from citizens in the McLean Gardens section of Washington.

Not that the doppelgängers wouldn’t have anything to talk about. Martí, after all, was the great fighter for liberation from a colonial government; Mendelson has for years been a devoted fighter for D.C. voting rights. And before becoming a councilmember, Mendelson was a popular member of his local advisory neighborhood commission—a collection of busybodies not so different from Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

Alas, says Mendelson, he’s got no Cuban blood pulsing under that mild-mannered demeanor. As far as he knows, his family is mostly Eastern European and WASP. Has he ever followed Martí’s lead and, say, handcuffed himself to the Capitol? “No, I don’t think so,” Mendelson says. Maybe he’s been stockpiling arms in his McLean Gardens apartment in anticipation of the coming revolt against Congress? “If I did, I don’t think I could tell you.” CP