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By Will Racke

In a Thursday statement, the State Department ordered families of U.S. diplomats at the embassy in Caracas to leave Venezuela in advance of a national vote that could upend the country’s political order and worsen its ongoing meltdown.

Anticipating escalating violence, State also initiated a voluntary evacuation of non-essential government employees working at the U.S. mission in Caracas. The orders were given as the Department updated its public travel warning for Venezuela, which now recommends that American citizens avoid any travel to the country due to “social unrest, violent crime and pervasive food and medicine shortages.”

State’s drawdown comes days before a Sunday vote to elect a new legislative body with the power to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. The new assembly, which is scheduled to take office Aug. 2, would replace the National Assembly as the country’s highest political institution and would be able to purge opposition to the regime of strongman Nicolas Maduro.

The U.S. government has warned Venezuela that it will bring punitive measures against the Venezuelan government if Maduro follows through with his plan to replace the National Assembly.

“If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions,” President Donald Trump said in a statement Thursday.

The Trump administration placed sanctions on 13 Venezuelan officials Wednesday for corruption and human rights violations.

Venezuela has been wracked by violence between government security forces and opposition groups since early June. Demonstrators are protesting the Maduro regime’s inability to alleviate the rampant crime, soaring inflation and pervasive shortages of food and basic consumer products.

The government crackdown on street protests has left more than 100 people dead. Most of those killed have been demonstrators, but several were members of the security forces or looters taking advantage of the unrest.

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