Bolivia Nationalizes Spain’s Abertis Airport Operations

Bolivia has nationalized a unit of Spain’s Abertis Infraestructura SA that operates the country’s three biggest airports, according to the government’s official news agency.

The nationalization was carried out because Servicios de Aeropuertos Bolivianos SA, or Sabsa, failed to invest in improving the airports of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and El Alto, which serves the capital La Paz, the Bolivian Information Agency ABI reported on its website today. Sabsa is also partly owned by Madrid-based Aena Aeropuertos SA.

The 1997 privatization of Sabsa amounted to “robbery” and “looting,” President Evo Morales said during a press conference in Cochabamba, ABI reported. During that time Sabsa’s profits have been “exorbitant” and its investments “ridiculous”, Morales said.

Morales, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a former union leader, has moved to put the telecommunications, energy and water industries under state control since taking office in 2006. Bolivia will hold presidential elections in December next year.

Shares in Barcelona-based Abertis today closed down 1.4 percent at 12.7 euros, after dropping as much as 2.6 percent during trading today. The company said in an e-mailed statement that it respects Bolivia’s decision and trusts it will receive adequate compensation. The Bolivian government froze the airport fees Sabsa collects over 10 years ago, the company said.

Miguel Angel Garcia, a spokesman for Aena, declined by telephone to comment.

Third Seizure

The decree signed by Morales today marks the third nationalization in less than a year of assets belonging to Spanish companies operating in the Andean country. In 2006 Morales also seized oil and gas fields and refineries belonging to Brazil’s state-run Petroleo Brasileiro SA.

“The Spanish government deeply regrets the Bolivian government’s decision to nationalize Sabsa, and particularly the police occupation of its headquarters,” Spain’s Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. “Spain does not consider this a friendly act.”

Morales in December ordered the seizure of four units controlled by Spain’s biggest utility, Iberdrola, following the takeover seven months earlier of Spain’s Red Electrica.

The ruling Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, wants Morales to run for a third presidential term in elections next year.

Bolivia’s economy is estimated to have grown by at least 5 percent in 2012 for the third straight year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Gross domestic product will expand by 5.5 percent this year, Finance Minister Luis Arce told local press on Nov. 9.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.