Guaidó closer to £1.3bn in Venezuelan gold after UK court ruling

Lawyers for disputed president, Nicolás Maduro, criticise overturning of appeal court decision

Marathon legal efforts by Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó to gain control over €1.6bn (£1.3bn) of gold reserves held by the Bank of England have come closer to success after the UK supreme court ruled that Britain unequivocally recognises him as head of state.

Although the supreme court referred the case back to the commercial court to study the issue further, it added that it did not believe the UK court could recognise rulings by Venezuela’s highest court, the supreme tribunal of justice (STJ), which has already declared Guaidó’s efforts to gain control of the assets unlawful.

The STJ is under the control of Nicolás Maduro, who was re-elected in 2018, and the supreme court said its judgments could not be recognised here so long as the British government challenged Guaidó’s right to the Venezuelan presidency.

The long-running and hugely expensive court battle means the reserves will remain under the control of the Bank of England until the dispute over their true owner is finally resolved.

The commercial court will be asked to decide if it is able to accept rulings of the STJ, but the supreme court in its judgement gave clear guidance saying the STJ rulings nullifying Guaidó’s actions could not be recognised in the UK courts if they conflicted with the view of the British government that Guaidó is president of Venezuela.

An initial high court decision that the UK had indeed unequivocally recognised Guaidó as interim president, and so controller of the assets, was overturned by the court of appeal in October 2020.

In response to the supreme court ruling on Monday, largely overturning that of the court of appeal, Zaiwalla & Co., lawyers acting for the Maduro-backed board of the Venezuelan central bank asserted that the UK should stop interfering in the internal affairs of their country, adding: “Mr Guaidó’s recognition flies in the face of the reality on the ground. His appointees have no ability to act on behalf of the Venezuela central bank in any effective way, or to represent it in any international legal proceedings.”

But the ruling was encouraging for Guaidó because the supreme court reinstated the overturned high court ruling that English courts are bound by the so-called “one voice” doctrine, a 19th-century legal concept whereby a statement by the UK government as to whom it recognises as the head of state of a foreign country must be accepted as conclusive in the English courts.

The judgment is important to how the UK recognises foreign powers and the extent to which UK courts can set aside what it regards as unlawful rulings in a foreign jurisdiction. It also acts as a boost for Guaidó’s sagging US-backed efforts to overturn Maduro.

The supreme court said the appeal court had unnecessarily complicated the issue by raising issues such as a potential distinction between head of state and head of government, and by suggesting that the UK government de facto may have recognised Maduro.

The supreme court instead pointed to a public statement by the then foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in February 2019 saying he recognised Guaidó as constitutional interim president of Venezuela. In addition the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had intervened in the supreme court appeal to make it clear that the UK government recognised only Guaidó as exercising the powers of president of Venezuela. Guaidó had appointed his own board to run the central bank, declaring in May 2020 that this board controlled the bank’s assets abroad.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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