* Morales says local Abertis unit slacked on investment
* Leftist leader has increased state control over economy
* Spanish companies have been hit by recent takeovers
By Carlos Quiroga
LA PAZ, Feb 18 Bolivian President Evo Morales,
who has tightened state control over the nation's small economy
since taking office in 2006, nationalized an airports operator
owned by Spanish infrastructure company Abertis on
In the latest in a series of state takeovers affecting
Spanish-owned companies, the leftist president said Abertis's
Sabsa unit had failed to fulfill investment commitments promised
almost two decades ago.
"I want to let the people of Bolivia know about the
nationalization of Sabsa," Morales said in a televised speech in
the central city of Cochabamba, adding that the company had made
"an exorbitant profit with a derisory capital input."
"For this and other reasons, we were obliged to make this
decision. We were ready to do this years ago, but we waited
because of our diplomatic relations with certain countries," he
An Abertis spokesman in Spain declined to comment on the
takeover, which affects operations at Bolivia's three
international airports in Cochabamba, the administrative capital
of La Paz and the eastern economic hub of Santa Cruz.
Bolivia has taken control of several power transmission and
distribution companies in the last year, affecting Spain's Red
Electrica and Spanish utility Iberdrola.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has urged Latin
American governments to respect Spain's investments in the
region, and his foreign minister warned on Monday that state
takeovers could hurt diplomatic ties.
"It's obvious that this kind of move, an expropriation that
bypasses usual procedures and doesn't respect the principle of
compensation ... will have consequences for bilateral
relations," Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told
reporters in Madrid.
Morales said an independent audit would be carried out to
decide how much compensation Abertis would be paid for Sabsa,
which stands for Bolivian Airport Services SA. Any outstanding
debts would be deducted.
He said the government had negotiated for several months
with the company over a nine-year investment plan that
envisioned spending of about $56 million, but that "these
efforts unfortunately have been in vain."
Earlier this month, a government minister said a Sabsa
proposal to invest $36 million was insufficient and that a
decision on scrapping the concession would probably be made
sometime in February.
Morales, a close ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez who shares
his penchant for fiery leftist rhetoric, was elected on pledges
to redistribute wealth in South America's poorest country and is
highly critical of the privatizations of the free-market 1990s.
One of his first measures was to seize control of the energy
industry, Bolivia's biggest foreign currency earner, and he has
also nationalized a telecommunications company, several mines
and a large tin smelter.
Many of those businesses, including Sabsa, were put into
private hands in the 1990s. Other Spanish companies in Bolivia
include bank BBVA.
Abertis shares were trading down 1.4 percent at 12.70 euros
per share following Morales's announcement in afternoon trade in
(Additional reporting by Jose Elias Rodriguez and Emma Pinedo
in Madrid; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Theodore
d'Afflisio and Andrea Ricci)