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The new five-year plan is Rodriguez's chance to prove once and for all that a lefty can run a major oil company as effectively as any capitalist CEO"more effectively," he insists. With giant new well projects at sites like Tomoporo and El Furrial, PDVSA hopes to increase daily output to more than 5 million bbl. by 2009, which Rodriguez now knows is critical to staying competitive. Some investors gripe that Chavez's 2001 hydrocarbons law makes it too difficult to participate in the lucrative quality-crude projects. But others praise Rodriguez (and more radical leftists berate him) for reserving more than a quarter of the $37 billion plan--$10 billion--for foreign investment, mostly in extra-heavy crude, marginal oil fields and Venezuela's massive natural-gas reserves. As one foreign oil boss in Venezuela assures skeptics, "There will always be investment opportunities here."
Executives at U.S. and European oil firms privately say the government is helping them find ways around the hydrocarbons law. If so, the extra capital could be good news for what Rodriguez considers the soul of his reforms--the PDVSA-financed social projects, whose popularity among the poor may spell the difference for Chavez in the referendum. "We're going to be an even more model oil company," says Rodriguez, "because we'll be as visible in the barrios as we are in the markets." The policy wonk, in other words, is still a rebel. --With reporting by Brian Ellsworth/Caracas