Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido tries to seize control of country's oil production

Samuel Osborne

The self-declared leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaido, is attempting to wrest control of the nation’s massive oil revenues.

The country’s congress, controlled by the opposition, has appointed a transitional board of directors for Venezuela’s state oil firm.

Embattled socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, lashed out at congress leader Mr Guaido, saying he would face the courts “sooner or later” for violating the constitution. Mr Guaido has invoked constitutional provisions to name himself interim president.

Mr Guaido said “the rescue of our oil industry has begun” after he announced the new board will oversee the PDVSA oil company as well as its US subsidiary, Houston-based refiner Citgo.

Although Mr Guaido has the backing of the US, as well as most South American and European nations, Mr Maduro retains control of the state’s institutions.

Mr Guaido will need funds if he is to assemble an interim government, and controlling Citgo, Venezuela’s most valuable foreign asset, would go some way towards providing them.

However, seizing control of PDVSA remains unlikely while Mr Maduro is in power. He has retained the support of the courts, administration officials and, most importantly, the military.

“We have taken a step forward with the reconstruction of PDVSA,” Mr Guaido said on Twitter, just after congress named the new directors. “With this decision, we are not only protecting our assets, we also avoid continued destruction.”

The company’s crude output has slumped to a 70-year low due to crushing debts, widespread corruption and little maintenance of its infrastructure, exacerbating the nation’s steep economic decline.

It comes after Donald Trump’s administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, aimed at curbing exports to the US and increasing the pressure on Mr Maduro.

The proposed Citgo board would be composed of Venezuelans Luisa Palacios, Angel Olmeta, Luis Urdaneta and Edgar Rincon, all of whom are currently living in the United States, plus one American director.

The nominations fuel the growing duel for control between Mr Guaido and Mr Maduro, who has promised he will not allow Citgo to be “stolen”.

An oil pumpjack painted with the colours of the Venezuelan flag (Reuters)

Mr Guaido’s representative in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, said company operations would be maintained as they are, with the same employees. He said the move was taken to prevent Citgo from being “plundered by the dictatorship”.

Mr Vecchio has previously said the government-in-waiting would allow foreign private oil companies a greater stake in joint ventures with PDVSA in order to increase oil production.

“The majority of the oil production that we want to increase will be with the private sector,” he said earlier this month.

He said the country under Mr Guaido would honour all “legal” and financial” debt, but suggested it may not honour debt agreements signed by Mr Maduro in which the country pays creditors with oil.

Additional reporting by agencies