Venezuela to take over airline and airports

AP AND AFP , CARACAS

Fri, Mar 27, 2009 - Page 7

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced on Wednesday he would nationalize the country’s private airline Aeropostal, citing government allegations it is linked to international drug networks.

Chavez, whose military on Saturday took control of all the country’s major airports and maritime ports, said “we will renew [Aeropostal] as a social property.”

He compared the projected transformation to that of state-owned airline Conviasa, which was created from the shell of bankrupt Venezuelan airline Viasa.

Chavez also said there would be an effort to grasp total regulatory control of the country’s aviation industry.

But Humberto Figuera, president of the Airline Association of Venezuela, said that a final decision is pending on the airline’s expropriation, and its supposed links to drug trafficking.

Speaking earlier to governors and parliamentarians from his ruling United Socialist Party, Chavez announced the creation of two state firms to run the country’s ports and airports that were taken over from regional authorities.

At the meeting Chavez ramped up his political attacks, slamming opposition leaders as “bandits” and arguing that their “crimes” have gone “unpunished” due to their political position.

Also on Wednesday Venezuela’s military moved to take control of five smaller airports in the northwest of the country, after the weekend’s action that saw the military take control of all the country’s major airports and maritime ports.

The expropriation was legal, following a recently enacted law handing management of the facilities to the central government.

Soldiers occupied maritime terminals in the opposition stronghold city of Maracaibo, the port of Guanta and others.

The move was to “reverse the disintegration of national unity,” said Chavez, referring to the reversal of decentralization moves 20 years ago that handed authority of ports and airports to state governments.

“We are reunifying the motherland, which was in pieces. This is a very important step,” he said.

When Chavez announced the move last week he threatened to arrest opposition governors if they resisted.

Chavez also signed a decree on Wednesday to end government spending on luxuries as Venezuela’s oil earnings shrink.

“We must put an end to mega-salaries, mega-bonuses,” Chavez said. “He who wants to be rich, go elsewhere.”

Chavez first announced the decree as part of an economic package proposed on Saturday to combat falling oil prices. Venezuela, which relies on oil for 93 percent of exports and nearly half the government’s budget, has seen world crude prices erode 64 percent since July.

Chavez called not only for an end to fancy cellphone services but also for a shift away from a culture of excess spending.

“We’re tirelessly fighting against this — this old culture of waste,” he said in a televised address.

Critics said the measures fail to address Venezuela’s soaring inflation and slowing economic growth.

The belt tightening under the spending decree could include everything from whisky-fueled parties to unnecessary office remodeling. Excessive publicity, promotional material and publications will be off limits, said Chavez — whose own image is displayed widely on billboards and subway station posters.