MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Venezuela, socialist President Hugo Chavez wants to expropriate part of Polar, that's a food and beer conglomerate known to every Venezuelan.

Chavez has nationalized oil companies, cement makers, even supermarkets, but plans to seize some of Polar's operations have run into a stiff opposition, and that's exposed the shortcomings in state takeovers of private industry.

NPR's Juan Forero reports.

JUAN FORERO: President Hugo Chavez has cast his fight with Polar as an epic struggle.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: In a speech to supporters in February, he mocked Polar, saying the company operated warehouses in the middle of the city.

President CHAVEZ: (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: And he told Polar's owner, Lorenzo Mendoza, that he'd have to pack up and leave. Chavez has had other choice words for Mendoza, saying he won't get to heaven because he is ricachon, so very rich. And Chavez threatened to nationalize all of Polar: 30,000 workers, 14 plants and 75 distribution centers. So far though, the government has only moved against Polar's warehouses here in Barquisimeto.

But the expropriation order, signed in April, has gotten lots of attention nationwide because Polar is Venezuela's best-known company.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: A commercial touts the pre-cooked flour that Polar has made for 50 years used for the cornmeal cakes that are a Venezuelan staple. Polar also makes beer, pasta and butter.

One of its key operations, a distribution point for beer and other beverages, is here in an industrial zone of this city in northwest Venezuela.

(Soundbite of warehouse)

FORERO: In vast warehouses, hundreds of workers load beer onto trucks. They've heard the government say it's the state that treats workers best. But they're not buying that argument.

Mr. JUAN TACOA (Union Leader): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: That's Juan Tacoa, and he says the workers here oppose the president. He says workers in nationalized companies have fared badly, unable to bargain collectively, watching their wages get slashed.

Tacoa is head of one of two unions at Polar's warehouses here and had once supported Chavez. But he, like other workers, says Polar provides good wages and benefits.

Chavez has reacted angrily to Tacoa. He has called Polar's union leaders lackeys of the rich.

Pres. CHAVEZ: (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: Who are they defending, Chavez asked? Those who exploit the people, he answered, the bourgeoisie.

Robert Bottome, though, says the exact opposite is true of Polar. He's the American-born editor of Veneconomia, a Caracas business journal.

Mr. ROBERT BOTTOME (Editor, Veneconomia: It sounds corny, but this is a company which has been treating its workers right for 70 years, and it's been treating its customers right for 70 years.

FORERO: Polar officials declined to talk about the struggle with Chavez or one presidential plan to replace the warehouses here with apartment buildings.

But Polar workers told NPR that they feared what would happen to their jobs in a government takeover. They know that once an expropriation order has been signed, the government can swoop in and seize property.

(Soundbite of domino game)

FORERO: So on a recent night, Yoh Guerrero settled in for a long night of dominoes with other workers. Guerrero said they'd guard the gates all night long to stop the government from storming the warehouses.

Mr. YOH GUERRERO (Worker, Polar): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: The workers fear for their jobs, he said, and that's why they're prepared to defend them.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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