surinenglish

The tales of two Madrid correspondents

Tobias Buck and Raphael Minder.
Tobias Buck and Raphael Minder.
  • Both Tobias Buck and Raphael Minder have written books on Spain, its politics and culture, while reporting from Madrid for the Financial Times and the New York Times respectively

The 2008-2013 global economic crisis is the focal point of After The Fall, a gripping book released last year by Tobias Buck, the Financial Times' (FT) Madrid correspondent from 2012 to 2017.

In elegant, compelling prose, Buck documents the causes of the crisis, starting with Spain joining the eurozone in 1999, and explores both its negative and positive effects, such as soaring unemployment and the emergence of new political forces, whose success has been fuelled by dissatisfaction with the status quo. One of the best chapters - Storming The Heavens - charts the rise of leftist Podemos ("We Can") and is especially interesting in light of recent events.

Buck has a great eye for colour and detail, for touches that really bring a story to life. Podemos was conceived in the left-leaning Faculty of Political and Social Sciences in Madrid's Complutense University, where "the atmosphere is cheerfully anarchic: students light up cigarettes despite a university-wide smoking ban. Amidst the thick tobacco smoke, the pungent scent of marijuana is unmistakable."

After studying and working as a professor in this rebellious environment, Iglesias formed Podemos in 2014, on the back of the "indignados" anti-austerity movements in Madrid. Now, just six years later, he is one of Spain's deputy prime ministers and sits next to sharp-suited Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez at the cabinet table.

Buck shows that Iglesias' rapid ascent, from indignant outsider to national lawmaker, would have been inconceivable without the crisis, which set the scene for newcomers unafraid of challenging a discredited and corrupt political class.

In his final chapter, the author rightly praises Spain's new parties for terminating the dual hegemony of the Socialists and the Conservatives, who up until recently were accustomed to swapping parliamentary majorities back and forth.

But as he also points out, the political fragmentation inaugurated by the 2015 general election means that "a party that cannot strike deals across the aisle... will have little hope of ever leading the Spanish government".

Up until a couple of weeks ago, when Iglesias and Sánchez finally ended the latest governmental deadlock, none of Spain's top politicians seemed able or willing to compromise. Now that the Socialist and Podemos leaders have made their historic deal, they must learn to shun their "tribal" instincts, as Buck puts it, in order to govern together effectively.

A love of Spain

Although it's not made explicit until the closing pages, a deep love of Spain informs Buck's writing. He describes it as an inherently "social country. It is not for people who want to be left alone".

Like me, you will surely be in agreement when the FT veteran says that Spaniards possess a "basic human decency that cut[s] across... prejudices and preconceptions" and that Spain itself is "tolerant, helpful, open, vibrant, creative and endlessly surprising". This essential book chronicles that diversity, as well as showing that despite the setbacks and hardships of the last decade, Spaniards have not been beaten by the crisis.

A frequent guest at Buck's home in Madrid was Raphael Minder, currently the New York Times' (NYT) correspondent for Spain and Portugal. Minder, who enjoyed evenings watching football and drinking beers with his fellow journalist (who is now stationed in Berlin for the FT), has also made a huge contribution to the international understanding of Spain, with a 2017 book entitled The Struggle For Catalonia.

Drawing on over 200 interviews, Minder's book is characterised by exceptional balance, in accordance with his high intellectual standards.

"I am...dumbfounded by those who decry an opinion without first seeking to understand it," he says - a quality that many of today's politicians seem unhindered by.

Yet despite his erudition, the Swiss journalist argues that it would be "foolish to predict" what will come next in the Catalan government's divisive, chaotic project to divorce Madrid. That's just as true now as it was three years ago; indeed, there have been momentous developments since Minder was finishing his book in early 2017.

During his reporting, the NYT journalist met all the key players in the Catalonia drama, one of whom hadn't taken centre stage at the time of being interviewed. Quim Torra is introduced first as the former director of a Barcelona-based cultural organisation, and subsequently referred to as a lawyer and publisher. Now, of course, he is president of the Catalan government - and faces an eighteen-month ban from public office for failing to remove pro-independence banners from the streets of Barcelona during electoral campaigns last March.

Torra's appeal is in the hands of Spain's Supreme Court, but he has said in recent interviews that he doubts it will be approved. Sadly, he's probably right.

It's particularly poignant to read Minder's interviews with Carles Puigdemont, Torra's predecessor as Catalan president, and Oriol Junqueras, leader of the pro-secession Catalan Republican Left (ERC). Puigdemont, with whom Minder dines at the Catalonian government's HQ in Barcelona, confesses that the only reason he is sitting in what he calls the "electric chair" of the regional presidency is to achieve secession.

With extraordinary frankness, he tells Minder that he "doesn't have a vocation for political leadership at this level".

One can't help wondering if Puigdemont, who led a peaceful life as a journalist before entering the furnace of Catalan politics, wishes he'd never sat in the "electric chair". After orchestrating an illegal independence referendum in Catalonia in October 2017, he fled to Belgium to avoid arrest by Spanish authorities, where he has remained ever since. Last October, Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine of Puigdemont's colleagues to between nine and thirteen years in prison for their roles in organising the referendum.

Junqueras was already leader of the ERC when he met Minder.

"We, the Catalans who want independence, 'estamos independistas'," he tells the author. Junqueras' use of "estar" rather than "ser" seems incorrect in this context, but he uses it deliberately to convey his belief that the current setup, which sees Catalonia mainly ruled from Madrid, is only temporary.

Last autumn, Spain's Supreme Court sentenced Junqueras to thirteen years behind bars for his role in organising the 2017 referendum - the lengthiest of the terms it gave to leading secessionists. Yet judging from remarks he's made in interviews and on social media since, the ERC president's pro-independence fervour is undiminished.

When I asked Minder what he loves most about being a reporter in the Spanish capital, he revealed an affection for Spain very similar to Buck's.

"Being a correspondent anywhere gives a wonderful license to ask questions and learn," he told me over email this week; "but in Spain, it comes with the added bonus that people are open, friendly and generally more than proud and happy to share their time and knowledge... I've never had a boring taxi ride in Madrid, nor have I often sat on my own in a bar without soon enough striking a random and fun conversation."

Minder's book lays bare Spain's fascinating complexity and invites us to consider what changes lie ahead, especially for Madrid's stormy relationship with Barcelona. And whatever's around the corner, it won't be boring - just like a taxi-ride or bar-room chat in the Spanish capital.