The US department of energy condemned the nationalisation plan as "a disturbing trend away from open and transparent market principles".

Minority partners

Chavez reiterated that Venezuela would take a stake of at least 60 per cent in four projects which are developing crude from eastern Venezuela's Orinoco Belt into synthetic oil. He said he hoped the foreign companies would stay on as minority partners.

"I'm sure that they're going to accept this because we are going to continue being partners. Now, if they aren't in agreement, they are totally free to leave," he said.
   
The four Orinoco projects have a production capacity of around 600,000 barrels per day.

Chavez has promised to take over oil and gas projects in Venezuela, the fourth largest exporter of crude oil to the US, along with power utilities and the country's biggest telecommunications company.

Despite the Venezuelan president's will the takeovers could prove difficult.

A senior Venezuelan oil official has acknowledged that the country could face hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties if it takes over the projects because of financing agreements with international banks.
   
Ratings agency Fitch said Venezuela would be in default on some $4bn in project financing if the government unilaterally takes over the Orinoco projects.