CARACAS, Venezuela, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Venezuela is pushing for an early regeneration of its maritime and defense port facilities, neglected over many years and found to be lacking in basic infrastructural capacity.
Moves for the development and refurbishment of the country's ports so far have attracted a major Chinese investor, China Harbor Engineering Co., which pledged an initial $600 million. More suitors are expected to follow CHEC to gain access to a key part of the oil exporter's infrastructure.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also signed agreements with Russia that are likely to result in supply and local assembly of a range of naval defense craft, including submarines, defense and security data showed.
Chavez launched a major military buildup as tensions with Colombia over guerrilla activities worsened in 2009. In recent months, however, Colombia has receded from Venezuelan populist rhetoric about "threats" facing the country but the United States still ranks as a potential "threat."
Several naval incidents brought the United States -- called "the empire" -- in Venezuelan press reports and Chavez in one incident claimed his forces chased off a nuclear powered submarine, without giving any details.
Most defense procurements have been geared toward equipping Venezuelan military preparedness to protect its oil resources. In 2010 Venezuela surpassed Saudi Arabia as the country with the largest reserves of oil and gas.
Most of the Chinese investment will likely go into building a new terminal at the Puerto Cabello, Venezuela's major port on the Caribbean coast. The work undertaken will include dredging and the construction of berths to enable the port to accommodate Post-Panamax vessels, Business Monitor International said.
Puerto Cabello declined after it was nationalized by Chavez in March 2009, when Venezuela's National Assembly voted to hand over control of the country's transport links, which were previously under state level control, to federal authorities.
As a result, Puerto Cabello, Maracaibo and Porlamar went under federal control and suffered a heavy decline in their performance. CHEC's arrival on the scene is likely to reverse those trends.
The Chinese company has 31 overseas branches and is the second-largest dredging company in the world. Although CHEC is capable of fixing many of the efficiency and management problems at Puerto Cabello, analysts said political change was also required to restore Venezuela's ports to their full potential.
Venezuela has been in recession since 2009 but made small gains toward economic recovery in 2011. Its imports last year exceeded $86.36 billion while exports totaled $108.5 billion on the back of greater oil revenues.
How much of the investment into maritime and naval facilities will directly benefit the Venezuelan navy remains unclear. The navy has 14,000 personnel and about 4,000 conscripts in its ranks and has been ordering frigates, patrol craft and other naval equipment from European suppliers. After recent agreements with Moscow, Caracas hinted at acquisition of up to six submarines.