CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez signed into law Tuesday the official nationalization of the country's gold mining industry and announced the impending arrival of the first shipment of repatriated gold.
Chavez signed the "natural law that reserves the exploration and management of gold, as well as the connected activities, to the state" during a ministerial meeting broadcast by state media.
"In order to reinforce national independence, economic independence... I sign this national decree for gold," added the Venezuelan president.
In December, Venezuelan lawmakers granted Chavez extraordinary legislative powers to govern the country by decree until the middle of next year.
During the ceremony, Chavez brandished a gold bullion from the Central Bank of Venezuela's coffers, which holds 154 tons of gold, an amount worth $7.2 billion.
Last week, Chavez announced his intention to nationalize the country's gold sector in order to prevent "mafias" from exploiting Venezuela's natural resources. Illegal mining makes up 60 percent of local production in the gold sector.
Major producers include the state-run Minerven, the Russian Rusoro, which mines gold in the southern Bolivar state, and Cuba's Geominsal, which carries out assessments, all in association with the state.
Chavez also announced plans to repatriate 211.35 tons of gold from foreign countries. About 80 percent of the $11 billion worth of reserves are held in Britain, principally in the coffers of the Bank of England.
"I believe that the first shipment will arrive in the following weeks," Chavez said Tuesday.
The Venezuelan leader also announced that he expects to move some $6.2 billion in cash reserves from banks in Switzerland, Britain, France and the United States to markets in "friendly" countries such as China, Russia and Brazil.
The leading oil exporter in South America, Venezuela has the 15th largest gold reserves in the world, with an estimated 365.8 tons, according to the World Gold Council.