LONDON — A British court gave another chance to President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela in a tug of war over about $2 billion of gold stored at the Bank of England in a contentious case that pivots on who Britain recognizes as the South American country’s leader.
In the ruling, the Court of Appeal set aside a decision by the High Court in July that had denied Mr. Maduro’s administration access to the gold reserves on the basis that the British government recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president.
Mr. Maduro has promised to sell about $1 billion of the bullion to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. According to the official tally in Venezuela, at least 650 people out of a population of about 30 million have died of the coronavirus, but the true scope of the pandemic is nearly impossible to determine: Most who die with Covid-19 symptoms are never included in the official statistics, and doctors and journalists who have questioned the government figures say they have been threatened.
Even before the coronavirus struck, Venezuela’s economy was in ruins and its health care system in tatters.
Under those strains, Mr. Maduro has treated the pandemic as a national security threat, calling Venezuelans who have come into contact with the coronavirus “bioterrorists.” Thousands who tried to return home after losing jobs in neighboring countries have been held in makeshift containment centers out of fear that they may be infected.
Lawyers representing Mr. Maduro’s administration argued that the Bank of England had “needlessly tied up” resources that were “desperately required” by refusing to release the gold reserves to the Bank of Venezuela.
On Monday, three judges at Court of Appeal in London ruled that it was unclear whether the British government considered Mr. Guaidó the leader of Venezuela for all purposes or whether it recognized that Mr. Maduro did in fact still exercise some or all of the powers of president.
In the ruling, one of the judges in the case, Lord Justice Males, cited a British government statement from 2019 that called Mr. Maduro’s government “illegitimate” and “kleptocratic,” and recognized Mr. Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela. But he pointed out that Britain had in practice maintained diplomatic relationships with the Maduro administration, mostly through its ambassador in London, and had kept its embassy open in Venezuela. At the same time, the judge wrote, the British government has declined to establish diplomatic relations with Mr. Guaidó, or to grant diplomatic status to his representatives in Britain.
The judge said that the British government would have to clarify the position before a court could decide who could gain access to the funds. If it declined to do so, he ruled, the Commercial Court in Britain, which handles complex national and international business disputes, would decide.
Mr. Maduro has been trying to withdraw the gold from the Bank of England since 2018, relying on the fact that medical supplies and humanitarian efforts are not subject to the British sanctions on his government. His administration filed a complaint when the Bank of England refused to release the bullion.
The gold reserves are one of the last major financial leftovers from Venezuela’s days as an oil superpower, and they have been at the center of the dispute between Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaidó.
Mr. Guaidó’s team has argued that Mr. Maduro would squander the money and has urged the British government to withhold the gold.
But lawyers representing Mr. Maduro’s administration welcomed the ruling on Monday and said that they were confident their client would soon gain control of the reserves.
Mr. Maduro has called for parliamentary elections in Venezuela in December, hoping to unseat Mr. Guaidó from the head of the National Assembly. Mr. Guaidó has called on Venezuelans to boycott the elections, but in recent weeks, two other opposition leaders have broken ranks and said that they would take on Mr. Maduro at the ballot box.
The United States has unequivocally sided with Mr. Guaidó. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted on Twitter that the parliamentary elections would be “unfair and unfree.”