LA PAZ — Bolivian President Evo Morales nationalized a Spanish-owned power company Tuesday, ordering the military to seize it, in a new blow to Madrid after Argentina took over a subsidiary of Spain's oil giant Repsol.
Morales said he had issued a decree nationalizing Transportadora de Electricidad SA (TDE), and taking control of 99.94 percent of the company, which is a subsidiary of the Spanish group Red Electrica Corporacion.
According to the TDE website, it owns and runs almost three-quarters of the South American nation's electric power lines, and in 2005 its assets amounted to $225 million.
Morales, a key member of a group of radical leftwing South American leaders, ordered the military to "undertake the corresponding takeovers of the facilities and administration of Transportadora de Electricidad," whose headquarters are in Cochabamba, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of La Paz.
The company had been privatized in 2007, under the previous liberal government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
Morales said his decision was based on the company's "weak investment" in the past five years.
Red Electrica said it was "surprised" at the move, adding it hoped to "come to an agreement with the Bolivian government on adequate compensation," according to Spanish media.
The move in Bolivia follows Argentina's decision to nationalize a Spanish-owned oil company, Repsol's YPF unit, which has soured Buenos Aires's relations with Spain and drawn sharp criticism from the European Union.
In Madrid, officials said the government was still gathering information about Bolivia's action, but said it was a different situation from the Argentine expropriation.
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner announced on April 16 that her country would nationalize YPF, saying the decision was prompted by Repsol's lack of investment in the company.
As a result, she said Argentina was forced to import about $9.3 billion of oil in 2011, while this year oil imports are estimated to reach $12 billion.
Repsol responded with paid advertisements in Argentina saying the company has invested $20 billion in Argentina, the largest investment in the country's history.
The legislative proposal to nationalize Repsol's interest in the oil company is expected to be enacted this week by Argentina's Congress. But the measure has drawn huge opposition from Spain, the European Union and the World Bank.
Repsol boss Antonio Brufau was in Bolivia on Tuesday for the inauguration of a new factory, but Morales reassured him that Repsol's investments in his country would "always be respected."
Bolivia's TDE was created in 1997 during a period that saw a wave of privatizations of state industries in Latin America by governments pursing liberal economic reforms.
Red Electrica Internacional, a subsidiary of Grupo Red Electrica de Espana, owns 99.94 percent of the company, with the remaining sliver owned by company workers, according to the website http://www.tde.com.bo.
Morales, a leftist, moved to nationalize the company amid rising labor unrest by unions demanding higher pay, with May Day demonstrations in the capital and other Bolivian cities.
Since coming to power in January 2006, he has used the annual May Day holiday to announce nationalizations of the country's oil wealth, electric power companies and smelters.
But on Tuesday, just steps from where he made his announcement, angry workers set off fireworks to demonstrate that they would not be sidetracked from their demands for pay increases.
Morales also unveiled an 8.0 percent salary hike on Tuesday, but union leaders said it was not enough and warned they would meet later in the week to decide on what action to take next.
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