Venezuelan Stocks Plunge as Chavez Talks Nationalization

Venezuela's stock market plunged almost 10% Tuesday after President Hugo Chavez announced plans to nationalize some power and telecom companies and make other bold changes that will concentrate more power in his hands.

Reuters quoted a spokesman for the White House National Security Council as saying U.S. companies affected by any nationalization must be "fairly compensated" and warning that "in general these types of actions do not produce economic benefits as expected."

Reuters also quoted Venezuela's Finance Minister as saying Chavez will give more details on his nationalization plans tomorrow.

Chavez, who will be sworn in tomorrow to a third term that runs until 2013, said Tuesday he wanted a constitutional amendment to strip the Central Bank of its autonomy and would soon ask the National Assembly, solidly controlled by his allies, to give him greater powers to legislate by presidential decree.

"We're moving toward a socialist republic of Venezuela, and that requires a deep reform of our national constitution," Chavez said in a televised address after swearing in his new Cabinet. "We're heading toward socialism, and nothing and no one can prevent it."

The changes are in keeping with pledges he made after his re-election last month to take a more radical turn toward socialism. His critics have voiced concern that he would use his sweeping victory to tighten his grip on power, following in the footsteps of Fidel Castro.

Cuba, one of Chavez's closest allies in the region, nationalized major industries shortly after Castro came to power in 1959. Bolivia's Evo Morales, another Chavez ally, moved to nationalize key sectors after taking office last year.

"The nation should recover its ownership of strategic sectors," Chavez said. "All of that which was privatized, let it be nationalized," he added, referring to "all of those sectors in an area so important and strategic for all of us as is electricity."

Bolivarian Revolution

Chavez, first elected in 1998, has progressively moved to remake Venezuelan society, rewriting laws, setting up state-funded cooperatives and starting a land reform program that has turned over large swaths of ranch lands to poor farmers. Chavez calls it his Bolivarian Revolution, named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

"The eight-year transition phase is ending and we're entering a new era -- the Simon Bolivar national plan, Bolivarian socialism," Chavez told his audience of cheering supporters.

The nationalization appeared likely to affect Electricidad de Caracas, owned by Arlington, Virginia-based AES , and C.A. Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela, known as CANTV, the country's largest publicly traded company.

Chavez said lucrative oil projects in the Orinoco River basin involving foreign oil companies should be under national ownership. He did not spell out whether foreign investors would be compensated or simply expropriated.

Political analyst Gloria Cuenca said the Monday's announcement was a glimpse of the next six years.

"It seems he has decided to stoke the fire to deepen his revolution, which from my point of view aims to look a lot like Castro's Cuba," said Cuenca, a communication professor at Venezuela's Central University.

Chavez did not appear to rule out all private investment in the oil sector. Since last year, his government has sought to form state-controlled "mixed companies" with BP , Exxon Mobil , Chevron , ConocoPhillips , Total and Statoil to upgrade heavy crude in the Orinoco. Such joint ventures have already been formed in other parts of the country.

The United States remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil, which provides Chavez with billions of dollars for social programs aimed at helping Venezuela's poor as well as aid for countries around the region.

Vow to Privatize Phone Company

Chavez threatened last August to nationalize CANTV, a Caracas-based former state firm that was privatized in 1991, unless it fully complied with a court ruling and adjusted its pension payments to current minimum-wage levels, which have been repeatedly increased by his government.

CANTV is the dominant provider of fixed-line telephone service in Venezuela, and also has large shares of the mobile phone and Internet markets.

Electricidad de Caracas is the largest private electricity firm in Venezuela. U.S.-based AES, a global power company that today has businesses in 26 countries, bought a majority stake of Electricidad de Caracas in a hostile takeover in 2000.

After Chavez's announcement, American Depositary Receipts of CANTV -- the only Venezuelan company traded on the New York Stock Exchange -- immediately plunged 14.2% to $16.84 before the NYSE halted trading. An NYSE spokesman said it was not known when trading might resume.

Investors with sizable holdings in CANTV's ADRs include some well-known names on Wall Street, including Deutsche Bank Securities, UBS Securities and Morgan Stanley. But the biggest shareholder, according to Thomson Financial, appears to be Brandes Investment Partners, an investment advisory company in California. Also holding a noteworthy stake is Julius Baer Investment Management, a Swiss investment manager.

CANTV said it was aware of Chavez's remarks but added in a statement: "No government representatives have communicated with the company, and the company has no other information."

Chavez cited the communist ideals of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin at other points in his speech.

In the fiery address, the president also used a vulgar word roughly meaning "idiot" to refer to Organization of American States Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza. He lashed out at Insulza for questioning his government's decision not to renew the license of an opposition-aligned TV station.