But there is arguably a far more important factor dominating the role of the South American country - oil.

Venezuela is the fifth biggest exporter of oil and one of the four major sources for US imports. Alongside Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, Venezuelan exports currently command the biggest share of US foreign demand.

In December 2004 Venezuela supplied the US with 1.6 million barrels of light crude oil per day (mbpd). That was out of a total domestic production of about 2.1mbpd. The country also produces extra-heavy oils from its Orinoco fields to the tune of 588,000 bpd. The government repeatedly claims production in excess of 3mbpd although this is not borne out by International Energy Agency figures.

American angle

But the December level of its exports makes Venezuela currently the biggest foreign oil supplier to the US, sending about 6% of America's daily needs and 15% of its demand for oil imports. Historically Venezuela supplies between 11% and 17% of America's imported oil.

However the relationship between the Chavez government and Venezuelan oil industry is often an uneasy one. The strike by oil management and employees in 2002/03 precipitated widespread political unrest and saw the Venezuelan economy actually contract by 7.7%.

The dependence on oil can also be seen by the fact the precious commodity makes up about 80% of Venezuela's exports and 30% of its total gross domestic product (GDP). Almost all of the $4bn of foreign investment that comes into Venezuela annually is centred on the oil industry.

Anxiety

With this in mind, recent events in Venezuela have not helped quiet anxiety over its relationship with oil. President Chavez announced that taxes paid by oil companies were to be reviewed saying that some oil companies paid "no taxes at all".

High oil prices are also pushing up
government taxes on oil

At the same time, corporate taxes were raised from 34% to 50% with the maximum tax take on major corporations being a whopping 67%. Royalties on sales were also increased last year from 1% to 16% overnight. Nevertheless current joint projects with oil majors Total, ChevronTexaco, Repsol and Shell all look set to carry on.

However Frederic Lasserre, energy analyst at bank Societe Generale, says increased taxation is not just a Venezuelan phenomenon. "It is happening all over the world with producer countries because of high prices.

"They are all raising taxes or royalties, one way or the other to take a bigger share of the revenues. It is not something that is particular to Venezuela; it is happening in Russia, Nigeria and so on. Sometimes it is more obvious, sometimes less, but it is happening in many places."

Under Venezuelan law, taxes evaded can only be back dated for four years, but even so the new rules hope to bring in an extra $2bn with more to come in the future. These extra revenues, backed up by the high price of oil, mean Chavez can sembrar el petroleo (literally sow the oil) as the old Venezuelan saying goes.

Increased revenues

Increased revenues from oil, based on current high prices, have meant a widespread set of social programmes to help the poorest in Venezuelan society. For example, literacy drives have meant an extra 1.5 million Venezuelans can now read.

An extra one million children have also been enrolled in schools and in 2005 an extra 120,000 homes for the poor are to be built, says the government. GDP also boomed in 2004, going up 17% with the private sector outdoing the public by 18% to 11%.

To fund these initiatives, as well as increased tax take from high pricing, the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) has been forced to hand over $3.7bn in 2004 alone. Its monies are earmarked for social programmes; they amount to around one-third of its total earnings.

Tensions

PDVSA has also been at the centre of long-running tensions between the Chavez government and the oil industry. PDVSA is accused of evading taxation by basing many of its operations abroad.

Nearly half its market capitalisation, 48%, is based outside Venezuela. By doing this, it hopes to pay its tax abroad, or to repatriate earnings only when it can offset them.

Non-payment of taxes is
anti-state, says Ramirez

"A state enterprise that has a strategy to not pay taxes is involved in an anti-national practice. One that we are now reversing," said Raphael Ramirez, erstwhile Oil and Energy Minister.

"But this argument has been going on long before the Chavez government," says Lasserre.

"PDSVA's management was always American educated. They always have had a dream that they will make PDVSA into a major international oil company, like BP or Total; one with resources all around the world.

"They have always been disappointed by the way they have been treated by Venezuelan governments. Because the country is so dependent on oil exports, money goes to the government not back to PDVSA to invest. It is not a problem of Chavez, but a long-standing one."

Damage

In recent weeks, Ramirez has also said the Venezuelan government wants to sell two refineries owned by PDVSA. American refinery Lemont and Ruhr Oel in Germany do not refine any Venezuelan oil and, according to Ramirez, run at a loss.

Even in the past fortnight Venezuelan troops have been sent to PDVSA oil installations. Western Venezuelan fields in Maracaibo have apparently been damaged by PDVSA employees and workers have been on unofficial go-slows amounting to 100,000 bpd shortfalls in expected supply. Troops were sent in to protect oil complexes from further damage.

Traditionally management and many of the best-paid workers in the Venezuelan oil industry supported the anti-Chavez movements. It was they who started the 2002 strike that lost an estimated $10bn in revenues, 18,000 of those who went on strike were fired.

Chinese arrive

But one key to Venezuela's oil future may be the arrival of new players on the global stage, the Chinese. It could be that China, who recently signed deals to develop fields and undertake exploration in Venezuela, is able to make significant investment in Venezuela's production capacity.

Chavez is likely to prefer Chinese
investment to that from the US

"Venezuela has needed huge investment for a long time," agrees Lasserre. "PDVSA have been unable to do it for one reason or another. For example the oils in western Venezuela are very heavy oils that need very specific technology to extract and refine.

"That takes a lot of investment. And, of course, in turn Chavez may well feel more secure politically with the Chinese doing this rather than America or American-friendly companies."

It appears that within this rich Venezuelan industry there may well be more twists and turns. The future relationship between the Chavez government and oil may well prove to be as volatile as its past.