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Nicaragua’s Miss Universe Emerges as Symbol of Defiance Against Ortega Regime

When Sheynnis Palacios was recently voted Miss Universe, it came as a bolt of good news in Nicaragua. Joyous crowds took to the streets of Managua for the first time since mass protests in 2018 that were put down with lethal force.

The Nicaraguan regime, paranoid about any hint of dissidence, initially congratulated Palacios, but has since cracked down on celebrations – not least because Palacios herself took part in the 2018 demonstrations, and opponents of the regime have taken her up as a symbol of hope and defiance.

Palacios, 23, became the first Miss Universe from Central America at this year’s edition of the competition, held in El Salvador on 18 November.

“It came as a surprise, and triggered spontaneous expressions of delight in the country,” said Elvira Cuadra, a Nicaraguan sociologist who lives in exile in Costa Rica.

Palacios comes from a low-income family who sold fried dough balls known as buñuelos to put her through university, and her story seemed to resonate with many Nicaraguans.

So too did her participation in the 2018 protests, which became common knowledge after photos of her from that time went viral before the Miss Universe competition.

Those protests sought to topple President Daniel Ortega, a 78-year-old former revolutionary hero who helped end the brutal four-decade Somoza dictatorship but has since turned Nicaragua into an authoritarian state during his latest stint as president, starting in 2007.

The protests lasted three months before being crushed, with more than 320 killed.

Some Nicaraguans watching the Miss Universe ceremony saw Palacios’s outfit, with her white dress and blue cape, as a reference to the national flag that was banned after 2018.

Palacios herself said nothing overtly political during the ceremony. She cited the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft as an inspiration before dedicating her crown to “the girls of the world, the girl inside me … and the more than 6 million people of my country”.

Her victory prompted a rare outpouring of joy in a country which in recent years has seen little to cheer about.

“Since 2018, Nicaragua has lived in a police state,” said Cuadra. “Lately they haven’t even allowed religious gatherings. But when Sheynnis won, people took to the streets with their national flags, singing the national anthem.”

The regime appeared unsure how to deal with Palacios and the excitement around her victory.

In the buildup to the competition, official media heaped scorn on her. One presenter said she was better suited to be “Miss Buñuelos”. When Palacios won, the government released a message congratulating her – only without the customary signature of either Ortega or Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice-president.

But Murillo then put out a broadcast ranting about “coup plotters” who were planning “manufactured provocations” under the pretext of celebrating Miss Universe.

Meanwhile, the regime detained a TikToker who defended Palacios against official criticism, and forced two artists to paint over a mural they had begun in her honour in the city of Estelí.

Whether Palacios will be allowed to return to Nicaragua is unclear, given that the regime has banned the director of the Miss Nicaragua franchise, Karen Celebertti, who also travelled to El Salvador, from coming back.

Celebertti’s husband and son were also reported to have disappeared on Monday.

“The government has shown itself nervous,” said Juan Pappier, the Americas deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Not out of weakness, but rather paranoia. They are afraid of anything that doesn’t fully align with them.”

Since the crushed revolt of 2018, Nicaragua’s slide towards authoritarianism has accelerated.

“We have seen a total demolition of freedoms and liberties,” said Pappier. “More than 300 people have been stripped of their nationality. Half of the NGOs that existed have been shut down. And there are still more than 80 political prisoners behind bars.”

The Catholic church, which Ortega accused of promoting a coup d’état in 2018, has also been persecuted.

The Universidad Centroamericana, a Jesuit university attended by Palacios and described by the government as “a centre of terrorism”, was recently shut down.

Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa, who refused to be deported to the US along with 222 other political prisoners in February, has been sentenced to 26 years in prison.

“I don’t think there is something we can call civic or public life today in Nicaragua,” said Pappier. “The repression is absolute.”

Since 2018, at least 600,000 Nicaraguans have left the country, mostly to the United States and Costa Rica.

Earlier this month, Nicaragua completed its withdrawal from the Organisation of American States, having rejected criticism for numerous human rights violations.

“In terms of systematic repression and isolation from the international community, this is the North Korea of our continent,” said Pappier.

Source: The Guardian