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Saying No to Hugo

This is the danger of doing business with governments that have little commitment to free enterprise: You risk losing all of your financial interests in your operations.

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) found that out the hard way, when they walked away from multibillion-dollar investments in oil-rich Venezuela rather than give in to President Hugo Chavez's demand to cede further control.

Chavez has been moving to nationalize industries in his country, already taking over telecommunications and electricity. He effectively seized the last remaining private interests in the oil industry in May. Chavez gave the companies until Tuesday to decide whether they wanted to remain as partners, albeit with much lower stakes than before.

Despite the billions multinational oil companies have poured into the development of the Venezuelan oil infrastructure, only Exxon and Conoco had the will to resist Chavez's thievery -- let's call "nationalization" what it really is -- as Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , BP (NYSE: BP  ) , Total SA (NYSE: TOT  ) , and Statoil (NYSE: STO  ) agreed to sign on to Chavez's new terms.

It's a high-stakes maneuver for the two holdout oil giants. The Wall Street Journal suggested that by pulling out now, they can try to go after Venezuelan oil assets here in the U.S. as compensation for their lost property. That might include refineries run by Citgo, the state's public face of oil. Yet if Venezuelan assets were seized here, Chavez might be more inclined to make good on his threat to cut off oil sales to the U.S.

It really shouldn't surprise anyone that these countries are moving to seize foreign assets. Such shenanigans are almost becoming routine in Russia, where BP and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) (NYSE: RDS-B  ) have been pressured to accept junior-partner status with state-controlled Gazprom.

Seems Chavez is doing more than just ripping a page from Russia's playbook. Reports suggest that he's considering allowing both LUKOIL and Gazprom to develop certain projects in his country. Such a move would at least salvage some Venezuelan value for ConocoPhillips, which has a 20% stake in LUKOIL.

When oil was cheap and exploration in these countries uncertain, governments were more than willing to offer incentives for the major oil companies to come in and establish their industries. Now, with oil a lucrative commodity that can drive foreign policy, the greedy hand of the state wants to grab hold of even greater shares of the pie.

Motley Fool Global Gains lead analyst Bill Mann likes to cite a saying: "What the king sells, I buy." That is, when a government privatizes an industry, it's usually a good time to get in on the investment. What do we do, though, when the king steals what we're selling?

Good international investments abound. Motley Fool Global Gains' Bill Mann recently visited China in search of market-beating investment opportunities. To find out which international stocks Bill is currently recommending, try the service free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. Total is a recommendation of Motley Fool Income Investor. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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10/20/2016 4:00 PM
COP $41.49 Down -0.23 -0.55%
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