The UK has “unequivocally recognised” Juan Guaido as president of Venezuela, the High Court has ruled in a battle over £800 million of gold bullion held in Bank of England vaults.
Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV) took legal action to release the gold held on its behalf, which was valued at more than a billion US dollars. It said it wanted to sell the ingots to help the country tackle the coronavirus crisis.
But the Bank of England said it is “caught in the middle” of rival claims to the gold, from the BCV board appointed by Nicolas Maduro and an “ad hoc” board appointed by opposition leader Mr Guaido.
On Thursday, Mr Justice Teare said: “Her Majesty’s Government does recognise Mr Guaido in the capacity of the constitutional interim president of Venezuela and, it must follow, does not recognise Mr Maduro as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela.
“Whatever the basis for the recognition, Her Majesty’s Government has unequivocally recognised Mr Guaido as president of Venezuela.
“It necessarily follows that Her Majesty’s Government no longer recognises Mr Maduro as president of Venezuela… there is no room for recognition of Mr Guaido as de jure president and of Mr Maduro as de facto president.”
At a four-day preliminary hearing in June, Nicholas Vineall QC – representing the “Maduro board” of the BCV – argued that the UK “unequivocally recognised” the government of Mr Maduro despite considering his position to be “illegitimate”.
He added that recognising Mr Guaido as head of state would be “an impermissible intervention in the affairs of Venezuela” and also “unlawful under international law”.
Mr Vineall said the UK Government “does not approve of the Maduro government” but “continues to recognise the Maduro government”, sending an ambassador to Venezuela and receiving Mr Maduro’s representative.
Mr Maduro, who became president of Venezuela following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, was sworn in for a second term last year amid claims of vote-rigging in the 2018 election, which was boycotted by opposition parties.
Mr Guaido declared himself acting president in January 2019 and, a month later, then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK recognised Mr Guaido as “the constitutional interim president of Venezuela until credible presidential elections can be held”.
Andrew Fulton, representing the “Guaido board” of the BCV, said the UK Government “has decided to recognise Juan Guaido as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela and has denounced the ‘illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime’”.
“In the courts of other countries whose governments have chosen to take a different stance to the UK on the legitimacy of Mr Maduro, the members of the Maduro board may enjoy a more sympathetic reception to their assertions that they are entitled to speak for the BCV," he said
“In England, however, those claims are doomed.”
The lead solicitor for the board of the central bank of Venezuelan (BCV) said the “Maduro board” of the bank will appeal against the High Court’s ruling.
Sarosh Zaiwalla said in a statement that the judgment “entirely ignores the reality of the situation on the ground” in Venezuela.
He said: “None of the board members of the so-called ‘ad hoc administrative board’ of BCV appointed by Guaido have been resident in Venezuela for some years now.
“Mr Maduro’s government is in complete control of Venezuela and its administrative institutions, and only it can ensure the distribution of the humanitarian relief and medical supplies needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”
Mr Zaiwalla added: “This outcome will now delay matters further, to the detriment of the Venezuelan people whose lives are at risk.”