Rafael Ramírez, the energy minister and president of Petróleos de Venezuela, did not respond to requests for an interview. But energy executives here with contacts within Petróleos de Venezuela said Mr. Ramírez, a confidant of Mr. Chávez, has been waging a struggle within the company to refocus operations toward producing more oil.
After weathering the turmoil of recent years, Western oil companies here are loath to speak publicly about their plans. “We don’t elaborate on bidding processes beyond the fact that we evaluate every opportunity and our decisions will be based on economics and other factors,” said Scott Walker, a spokesman for Chevron.
But energy executives here speak with restrained optimism. Nineteen companies paid $2 million each last month for data on areas open for exploration, twice what such data costs elsewhere.
Oil companies say they recognize the risk of investing in Venezuela, given the country’s abrupt shifts in the past. But they focus on the long-term potential of its petroleum reserves. Venezuela poses little risk in the search for oil since geologists have known for years where it lies in the Orinoco Belt.
Venezuela also differs from top oil nations like Saudi Arabia and Mexico, where national oil companies have monopolies. Petróleos de Venezuela let private companies remain as minority partners after the nationalizations, despite Mr. Chávez’s often aggressive anticapitalist stance.
Moreover, foreign oil services companies like Halliburton , which has done business in Venezuela for 70 years, have even expanded their activities in the country as Petróleos de Venezuela grew more dependent on contractors to help extract oil from aging wells.
Still, doubts persist over the chances that the new bids, which are set to conclude in June, will ultimately result in finished oil projects. Risks of operating here were underscored again last week when Venezuela ordered new production cuts along with other OPEC members, impacting ventures with private partners.
Under the current bidding rules, the onus for financing the new projects lies with the foreign companies, even though Petróleos de Venezuela would maintain control. Banks might balk at such a prospect. Distrust also lingers in dealing with Petróleos de Venezuela.
“An agreement on a piece of paper means nothing in Venezuela because of the way Chávez abruptly changes the rules of the game,” said a Venezuelan oil executive who has had dealings with oil companies from China, Russia and other countries.
“In 10 years, not one major oil project has been built in Venezuela,” said the oilman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “Chávez has left his so-called strategic partners out to dry, like the Chinese, who have been given the same treatment as Exxon.”
But the severity of the drop in oil prices may ultimately dictate the terms on which Venezuela re-engages with foreign oil companies.
“Chávez is celebrating the demise of capitalism as this international crisis unfolds,” said Pedro Mario Burelli, a former board member of Petróleos de Venezuela. “But the irony is that capitalism actually fed his system in times of plenty,” he said. “That is something Chávez will discover the hard way.”
María Eugenia Díaz and Thom Walker contributed reporting