Venezuela seizes Cargill plant

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Venezuela said March 5 it has no plans to take over any additional holdings of U. S. food giant Cargill after socialist President Hugo Chavez ordered the seizure of its rice plant, renewing his nationalization drive.

Chavez’s clash with the food companies, demanding they produce cheaper rice, came less than three weeks after he won a referendum on allowing him to run for re-election and marked his first nationalization in seven months.

The move shows he is likely to continue his combative style as the OPEC nation, faced with tumbling oil revenues, slowly begins to feel the effects of the global economic crisis.

“The measure only includes the rice plant,” said Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua.

The government earlier temporarily occupied rice mills owned by Venezuela’s top food company Empresas Polar, which called March 5 for dialogue and increased co-operation after Chavez said he could nationalize the entire company.

“We have maintained that the best way to increase Venezuela’s food (production) is through dialogue and close collaboration between the government, agricultural producers … and consumers,” Polar said in response to Chavez’s threat.

Chavez has often followed through on his nationalization threats, taking over oil, electricity, steel, cement and telecommunications companies. Sometimes, however, threatened companies have averted seizures by bowing to Chavez’s demands.

The anti-U. S. president is popular among the poor for pressuring companies to produce cheap goods and for government programs that provide subsidized food in city slums.

But Polar, the producer of Venezuela’s top beer brand and key staple products such as corn flour, is also highly regarded among the OPEC nation’s poor.

The recent moves to tighten the government’s grip over food supplies are criticized by the private sector and many economists who say it could contribute to food shortages.

Cargill employs 2,000 people at a dozen plants in Venezuela. It was not clear if Chavez intends to expropriate Cargill’s local operations or just its one rice plant.

Cargill said on March 5 it was “respectful” of Venezuela’s decision but seeks talks to resolve the situation.

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