The meeting here of ministers from the 18 countries taking part in the Venezuelan-sponsored Petrocaribe initiative ended with agreement on more than $16 billion in new investment and a commitment to studying the possible incorporation of food security into its programs.

"Progress is being made in developing eight energy infrastructure projects with an estimated investment of close to $16.7 billion," Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said Tuesday in Managua.

Ramirez, who also is president of state-owned oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela SA, did not offer details on the projects, although the day before he had confirmed plans to build one new refinery in Cuba and another in Nicaragua, as well as expand Cuba's Camilo Cienfuegos crude-processing plant.

The minister, who read a statement on the summit's results in the company of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, said Petrocaribe accounts for 45 percent of the energy needs of 14 of the initiative's 18 member countries.

He noted that trade among Petrocaribe countries, including the provision of hydrocarbons and other goods and services, amounts to roughly $14.96 billion annually, with $5.83 billion of the transactions occurring under the initiative's different financing agreements.

"This is a very important element (the financing) because it's been precisely this arrangement that has protected our countries from the volatility and instability that often afflicts the global energy market," Ramirez said.

He added that the Petrocaribe countries have built 25 facilities with the capacity to refine 135,000 barrels per day, store 262,000 barrels and produce 365 MW of electricity.

During the meeting in Managua, the ministers agreed to form a work group specifically focused on electricity projects and also discussed the need to develop the region's renewable energy sources, mainly geothermal and wind, Ramirez said.

Additionally, "an arrangement to supply up to 100,000 metric tons of petrochemicals" also will be discussed at Petrocaribe's next summit of heads of state and government, to be held at a date and place announced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The idea, he added, is to increase agricultural activity and food production to "safeguard our countries from the mercantilist logic that's being imposed on food."

"We think Petrobras, given its development, should transcend the merely energy-related (and) make inroads into food (security) issues and a bigger push into fair trade-related issues," he added.

Petrocaribe, founded in June 2005 by Chavez, allows its Central American and Caribbean member countries to purchase crude and derivatives from oil-rich Venezuela on conditions of preferential payment.

Under the initiative, oil-importing countries also can pay Venezuela part of the cost of their crude imports with agricultural products such as plantains, rice and sugar.

In addition to host nation Nicaragua, delegates from Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Granada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Venezuela participated in the summit.