Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido is locked in a standoff with President Nicolas Maduro for control of the country (Federico PARRA)

Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido took another step Wednesday in an international bid to economically starve President Nicolas Maduro’s regime, announcing the appointment of a new board for Citgo, the US-based arm of state oil firm PDVSA.

Guaido — who has been recognized as acting president by more than 50 countries and also heads the opposition-controlled National Assembly legislature, which appointed the new board — is locked in a battle with Maduro for control of the crisis-hit country.

The United States, which is leading the push to topple Maduro, has sanctioned key regime financial assets including Citgo, and on Wednesday President Donald Trump once more refused to rule out military action against the leftist leader.

Announcing the new six-member board on Twitter, Guaido said it “will be made up of qualified Venezuelans, who are free of corruption and without any partisan affiliation.”

“With this decision, we are not only protecting our assets, we are avoiding the ongoing destruction and loss of the business,” said Guaido, who declared himself interim president after incumbent Maduro announced victory in polls the opposition said were rigged.

The previous board was named by Maduro, who has presided over the economic collapse of Venezuela.

The country is wracked by recession and hyperinflation, while millions of people are suffering from shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.

– ‘US blockade’ –

Venezuela earns 96 percent of its revenues through oil but its production has dropped to a 30-year low of 1.1 million barrels a day.

The US was its biggest single customer, buying almost half of its production, which represented 75 percent of the country’s liquidity.

Caracas says the “US blockade” has cost it $30 billion.

In announcing the latest raft of sanctions last month, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Citgo can continue to operate, but its earnings must be deposited into a blocked account in the United States, out of reach of Maduro’s regime.

As Venezuela’s opposition moved to replace Citgo’s leadership, Trump was hosting Colombia’s President Ivan Duque for talks on the crisis gripping its Latin American neighbor.

Declaring himself “sad” about the “turmoil” in the oil-rich nation, Trump demanded that Maduro unblock US aid shipments to the country, sitting on the Colombian side of the border.

Key to Guaido’s strategy to oust Maduro is bringing in the aid that has been blocked by Venezuela’s military, at Maduro’s behest.

Success would demonstrate to Venezuela’s people that Guaido is able to meet their needs.

Maduro says the aid is a “political show” and would be a prelude to a US invasion.

“You’ll see,” Trump told reporters at the White House when asked if thousands of US troops could deploy.

Duque, whose country has taken in large numbers of Venezuelan refugees, also lambasted Maduro, saying that “obstructing the access of humanitarian aid is a crime against humanity.”

– ‘Feast of hatred’ –

“I think he’s making a terrible mistake” by not letting in the aid, Trump said of Maduro.

“We’re trying to get food to people that are starving. You have people starving in Venezuela.”

Maduro hit back at the two leaders, terming the meeting a “feast of hatred” and warning: “Hands off Venezuela.”

At a huge opposition rally on Tuesday, Guaido vowed that humanitarian aid would enter the country on February 23.

“We have almost 300,000 Venezuelans who will die if the aid doesn’t enter,” he said.

In his latest attempt to erode Maduro’s authority over the military, Guaido added: “Here is a direct order to the armed forces: allow in the humanitarian aid once and for all (and) end the repression.”

Guaido’s team has met with Brazilian officials to set up a second aid storage center on that border. The new right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has joined the growing coalition against Maduro.

But Maduro has so far resisted, portraying himself in the mold of historic Latin American anti-imperialist leaders.

He has backing from Russia and China, as well as his armed forces.

Moscow weighed in on Tuesday, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warning “against all interference in Venezuela’s domestic affairs, including the use of force threatened by Washington.”

There have been growing rumors about possible US preparations for some kind of military involvement ever since Trump’s hawkish national security advisor John Bolton was photographed with a notepad reading “5,000 troops to Colombia?”

However, on Wednesday the State Department point man for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, played down the idea.

Military intervention “is not a path that the US government is pursuing,” he said. “I don’t see a reason” for the use of force.

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