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Chavez talks tough about Venezuelan telecom

/ Source: The Associated Press

Shares of Venezuela’s CA Nacional de Telefonos, or CANTV, plunged in New York trading Monday after President Hugo Chavez said he wants an immediate state takeover of the telephone company and will not pay shareholders the market value.

CANTV’s U.S. shares were down 14 percent to $11.58 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange. CANTV, privatized in 1991, is controlled by U.S.-based Verizon Communications Inc., which holds the largest minority share.

Speaking during a Sunday broadcast, Chavez said the price for CANTV would take into account debts to workers, pensions and other obligations, including a “technological debt” to the state.

“I’ll pay when the law dictates and in the form the government decides. I’m going to tell them that CANTV was given away, and that they shouldn’t come here saying it must be paid for at the international price,” he said.

Chavez announced the plans for the nationalization this month, and on Sunday he said it should happen right away.

“Have we taken over CANTV yet? ... Call its bosses and start to name a new board of directors,” Chavez told Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacon during his TV and radio program, “Hello President.” “You have to act, I’ve already given the instructions.”

He said the nationalization would be hastened by the passage of the “enabling law,” which would grant Chavez authority to pass a series of laws by decree during an 18-month period. The National Assembly, controlled by the president’s political allies, is expected to give the measure final approval this week.

The takeover jeopardizes an agreement by Verizon to sell its 28.5 percent stake in CANTV to a joint venture of America Movil and Telefonos de Mexico SA, controlled by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The sale had been awaiting Venezuelan government regulatory approval.

Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe would not comment on what options his company believes it has in trying to affect the price in the CANTV takeover. “Given the decision the government has made, we support efforts to adopt a proper process and move ahead promptly,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Chavez — a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — also has said he plans to nationalize the electricity sector, and to take state control of four lucrative oil projects and the natural gas sector.