Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter (with much of its crude and refined product finding its way to the U.S.), has become more politically precarious of late than may be generally recognized. With President Hugo Chavez working diligently to pattern his nation's economy after the half-century-old economic catastrophe that is Castro's Cuba, the results could ultimately become negative for the world's wobbly energy supply/demand balance -- and for U.S. gasoline prices.

Over the past several months, Chavez has been on an intensifying nationalization spree that's targeted an array of industries, including banking, agriculture, steel, and energy. It's also resulted in the ouster of such major international energy companies as ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP), Chevron (NYSE:CVX), and Italy's Eni (NYSE:E). These companies had been working in the challenging Orinoco Basin, where a thick, gooey crude creates challenges for producers and refiners alike. Whether the state oil company's engineers, who now must oversee extracting the Orinoco crude, will be up to the task of maintaining current production levels is open to question.

At the same time, as The Wall Street Journal reported last month, Chavez's programs reduced the country's food output by 8% last year, as big farms and ranches have been chopped up as part of a collectivization effort. The result has been pervasive shortages, price controls, and an inflation rate approaching 20% annually. "You get up at dawn to hunt for a chicken breast all over town," a Caracas homemaker told the Journal.

And then there was the recent Chavez communications caper, where he pulled the license of the Radio Caracas Television station, the nation's oldest private channel, which had been critical of his regime. In its place, amid widespread rock-throwing protests by thousands of furious Venezuelans, he installed a new public channel.

So Hugo is pressing forward. Though the country is still exporting 2.2 million barrels of oil a day, Venezuelan oil production has slowly ticked downward over the past couple of years. It's highly possible that, much as has been the case with the nation's food production, those numbers could begin to slide at a faster clip thanks to Hugo's "reforms."

If that were to happen, the $3.00 or so to which U.S. gasoline prices have newly retreated could seem cheap. With that in mind, I urge Fools to keep your fingers crossed and also to maintain energy representation in your portfolios.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He welcomes your questions or comments. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.