Nov 3 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced plans to restructure the OPEC nation's external debt during an unprecedented economic crisis, setting the stage for a confusing negotiation some investors fear could end in default.
Here are some of the key players in Venezuela's debt drama.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO
Maduro, a 54 year-old former bus driver and foreign minister narrowly elected in 2013 to succeed late leader Hugo Chavez, has seen his popularity tumble due to a worsening economic crisis that has sparked food shortages and rampant inflation.
With presidential elections due next year, Maduro is mindful that hefty debt obligations have diverted funds away from imports of food and medicine. He has vowed to keep paying bondholders despite U.S. sanctions, but sources close to his administration say voices advocating default have increased as resources dwindle.
VICE-PRESIDENT TARECK EL AISSAMI
Maduro tapped El Aissami to lead Venezuela's debt committee, a controversial choice given the vice president has no known prior experience in finance and was sanctioned by the United States this year for alleged drug trafficking.
The Treasury Department said El Aissami oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including shipments to Mexico and the United States.
El Aissami, a 42-year-old lawyer and criminologist who was a minister and state governor, has denied the accusations and scoffed at "imperialist aggression."
ECONOMY MINISTER AND PDVSA CFO SIMON ZERPA
Zerpa, who is in his mid 30s, rose to prominence by heading the bilateral Venezuela-China fund through which Caracas borrows from Beijing and repays loans in oil and fuel, leading Maduro to nickname him "Zerpa the Chinese." Zerpa's father is Venezuela's ambassador to China.
In July, Washington sanctioned Zerpa for alleged corruption. That has complicated operations at state oil company PDVSA , with banks saying they are fearful of being associated with Zerpa, now PDVSA's chief financial officer. Zerpa, like Maduro, has blasted the U.S. sanctions as "imperialism".
Zerpa is also a member of Venezuela's new debt committee.
PRESIDENT OF PDVSA NELSON MARTINEZ
Oil industry veteran Martinez was tapped earlier this year to become oil minister after years at the helm of Venezuela's U.S.-based refiner Citgo Petroleum Corp.
Martinez quickly accumulated clout in Venezuela's energy sector, and was appointed to lead PDVSA in August. A chemist by training who studied in England and the United States, Martinez is usually seen as one of the less ideological Venezuelan officials.
He is also on the debt committee.
U.S. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
Trump has taken a strong position against Maduro, calling him a "bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator," and imposing sanctions on the oil-exporting nation.
In August, Trump signed an executive order that prohibits U.S.-based institutions from dealings in new debt from the Venezuelan government or PDVSA, which essentially makes refinancing debt impossible.
Maduro said at the time that the United States was seeking to force Venezuela to default but he said it would not succeed. Trump has also slapped individual sanctions on a raft of officials from Maduro down, on charges of rights violations, drug trafficking and corruption.
Maduro's confusing and vague announcement has alarmed the market, prompting a major sell-off in bonds on Friday.
Investors are deeply skeptical that Maduro's government, which includes few technocrats, can pull off a complex refinancing attempt amid the economic crisis and U.S. sanctions.
Institutional investors with big holdings include T Rowe Price Associates Inc, Ashmore Investment Management Ltd, and BlackRock Investment Management Ltd.
Distressed assets investors, sometimes known as "vulture funds" who seek out situations of disputes with creditors, could boost their holdings.
The opposition has long warned that Venezuela's debt load is unsustainable and has pressed Maduro towards a refinancing to alleviate a fourth straight year of recession.
However, the head of the opposition-run congress, Julio Borges, said on Thursday that no one in the world trusts Maduro, so his restructuring attempt will fail.
With the opposition demoralized and riven by infighting, it is unlikely they will be a strong voice in potential debt negotiations.
(Compiled by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas,; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Rosalba O'Brien)