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Venezuela Shuffles Leadership of Oil Industry

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela announced this weekend that Alí Rodríguez, president of the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., would become the country's foreign minister, while the energy minister, Rafael Ramírez, would assume the added responsibility of leading the state oil company.

Analysts said the move was intended to strengthen Mr. Chávez's hold over the oil industry at home while tapping Mr. Rodríguez, an oil executive, to work toward the international expansion of Mr. Chávez's leftist movement by using oil from the world's fifth-largest oil exporter as a diplomatic bargaining chip.

"President Chávez believes that energy policy and foreign policy go hand in hand," said Roger Tissot, director of markets and countries for the PFC Energy Group, an energy consulting group in Washington, "so he needs someone like Alí Rodríguez who has the technical background to build diplomatic bridges out of commercial relationships based on oil."

After squarely defeating his adversaries in Venezuela through a resounding defeat in a recall referendum last August and a near sweep of regional elections for governors and mayors last month, Mr. Chávez is now on a diplomatic tour that will visit oil nations like Libya, Qatar, Iran and Russia.

Mr. Rodríguez, 66, a former communist guerrilla and a former secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, is likely to be the lead negotiator for projects like PetroAmérica, a South American government-run oil company conceived in response to privatizations in Latin America, as well as a similar project in the Caribbean called PetroCaribe.

Mr. Rodríguez was put at the helm of Petróleos de Venezuela, known as Pdvsa (pronounced pey-dey-VEY-sah), in 2002 to mend the fractured company after an oil strike led to a coup that ousted Mr. Chávez for two days. Mr. Rodríguez also oversaw the dismissal of over half the company's work force in 2003 after a two-month shutdown meant to force Mr. Chávez from office.

Mr. Chávez beat out the strikers and took a firm grip on the corporation, using proceeds from its sales to finance social investment while curbing the independence of the $42 billion corporation designed nearly 30 years ago with the idea of keeping oil and politics separate.

Critics say the designation of Mr. Ramírez as both energy ministry and president of Pdvsa represented the end of the company's last vestiges of autonomy.

"Instead of a regulatory system with checks and balances, we have Ramírez in charge of everything," said Alberto Quirós Corradi, a former Pdvsa director who works closely with the opposition. "This is just the formal consolidation of what has already been going on for some time: Pdvsa's complete subordination to the executive branch."

Speaking to the local press, Mr. Ramírez insisted he would be able to separate his roles as energy minister and Pdvsa president.

"We are going to be very scrupulous about this," he told the state news agency Venpres. "To the ministry, that which belongs to the ministry, and to Pdvsa, that which belongs to Pdvsa."

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