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Venezuela Courts US Investment Before Caracas Roundtable

HOUSTON (By Angel Gonzalez and Jessica Resnick-Ault of Dow Jones Newswires)--As political tension between Venezuela and the U.S. reaches historical heights, Venezuelan diplomats and business leaders met with Houston-based executives Friday to signal that trade relations are far warmer - and U.S. investors are welcome.

"Not many people know the U.S. has more trade with Venezuela than it does with Spain or Australia," said Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S., as he invited the executives to a U.S.-Venezuela business roundtable to be held in Caracas from June 30 to July 1.

Trade between the U.S. and Venezuela has flourished since a presidential recall referendum held in August 2003 marked the end of a long period of political instability, Alvarez told Dow Jones Newswires. Economic growth fueled by high energy prices has opened investment opportunities there, he said.

"Our job here is to make sure that U.S. companies have opportunities too, despite political differences, which are normal," said Alvarez.

The roundtable comes on the heels of recent oil sector tax hikes that have fostered uncertainty among U.S. investors about the security of Venezuela's business climate.

Tension has also mounted over the fate of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile accused of terrorism in Venezuela and currently held by U.S. authorities pending an extradition request by the South American country. President Hugo Chavez said recently that relations with the U.S. would be re-examined if the extradition doesn't take place.

But the ambassador tried to assuage these fears by referring to the strong economic and cultural links that already exist between the two nations.

"Sometimes we're accused of anti-Americanism, but if you see what we give this country in energy, trade, baseball and culture, you'll see there's no anti-American sentiment," he said.

A delegate from state-owned oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PVZ.YY) said that the country's current refinery expansion plan provided investment opportunities, but also conveyed the message that oil is not the only business there.

"Plastics," said Susana Manzano, manager of domestic capital formation at PdVSA. "One of the priorities will be the plastic industries."
Agriculture and fisheries are also priorities, said Roger Figueroa, Venezuela's vice minister of commerce.

Attendees of Friday's conference said the upcoming roundtable might be helpful to businesses trying to break into Venezuela's emerging plastics market, and could also be a boost for companies working in the U.S. with CITGO, the U.S.-based refining arm of PdVSA.




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