Venezuela ditching World Bank arbitration in nationalization disputes

Jan. 26, 2012 at 5:23 PM
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CARACAS, Venezuela, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Venezuela is ditching the World Bank's arbitration court in a bid to avoid facing multimillion-dollar compensation claims from foreign companies nationalized by President Hugo Chavez over more than a decade.

Chavez, seeking re-election this year despite diminished health, has accumulated a vast array of compensation claims from foreign companies he seized in response to political quarrels, business disputes or ideological aims. Not all claims have made it to the arbitration court.

Even the president's staunchest allies have admitted privately that the nationalization program, advanced as one of the pillars of Chavez's socialist revolution, could have been handled differently.

Instead, the transfer of one economic sector after another to state control, without due process of expert supervision and accountability of those put in charge, has plunged Venezuela into a severe downturn. Oil-rich Venezuela is in recession for the third year running.

It wasn't immediately clear if Venezuela's departure from the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes would get Caracas off the hook. Venezuela joined the arbitration body in 1993, six years before Chavez became president and launched a wave of nationalizations.

Chavez first threatened Venezuela's withdrawal from the court in response to early reactions to his nationalizations in 2007.

The state takeovers have affected foreign as well as Venezuelan companies in the energy and mining sectors, media and telecommunications. Now officials say joining the arbitration court was a mistake and leaving it will help restore Venezuela's national sovereignty.

A Foreign Ministry statement claimed Venezuela was forced into becoming a party to the arbitration terms under its former political system. Chavez came to power in 1999.

"Venezuela had weak governments that decided to participate in the international arbitration court in the past after being forced by multinational companies," the ministry said.

"The government will continue to implement policies that defend national sovereignty and in particular issues related to strategic assets, offering fair compensation to individuals and companies, in agreement with local laws."

Venezuela's withdrawal was expected. Earlier this month Chavez said Venezuela would pull out of the ICSID and not accept any of its rulings in about 20 claims against the government that are awaiting arbitration.

A separate court awarded Exxon Mobil Corp. about $750 million in compensation for assets seized in 2007, while an ICSID decision on the dispute is still awaited.

Despite Chavez's rhetoric withdrawal from the arbitration court could take many years and pile up more liabilities for the government in legal fees, analysts said.

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