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Beauty Queen Palacios (at her coronation as "Miss Universe" on November 18): With the national flag on the barricades


Hector Vivas/Getty Images

The streets of Managua were filled with a festive atmosphere: thousands of people waved the blue and white flag of Nicaragua and sang the national anthem. The 23-year-old Sheynnis Palacios had just become the first in her country to be elected the new "Miss Universe". In Palacio's hometown of Diriamba, church bells rang. "Thank you for bringing joy to our suffering people," wrote Monsignor Silvio Baez, the exiled auxiliary bishop of the capital, on X. The beauty queen has become a "loving national symbol" that "raises hopes," said dissident Wilfredo Miranda.

For the people of Nicaragua, Palacio is much more than "Miss Universe". They see her as a figurehead of the resistance against the dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega, who has mutated from left-wing guerrilla to dictator. In 2018, she took part in student protests against the regime, which were brutally suppressed by the police. More than 355 demonstrators were shot dead by government troops, human rights organizations estimate. More than 100,000 Nicaraguans fled into exile. Hundreds of opponents of the regime, including well-known intellectuals and former heroes of the Sandinista revolution, were expatriated.

Initially, the government had even congratulated Palacios on her triumph – but then quickly changed course. Apparently, she fears that the spontaneous celebrations could lead to a new wave of protests. In a six-page communiqué that Palacios did not mention at all, dictator's wife and vice president Rosario Murillo accused opponents of the regime of abusing the celebrations. "Terrorist commentators" are taking advantage of a "beautiful and well-deserved moment of pride" to plot "destructive coups." Critics disparaged them as "vampires" and "viciously crazy, vain, windy types."

The Miss Universe pageant had taken place two weeks ago in El Salvador. According to information from opposition circles, the government initially wanted to prevent the return of the beauty queen to Nicaragua but then changed its mind. However, the Nicaraguan entrepreneur who had sponsored Palacios for the competition was prevented from entering the country and expatriated, and her husband was arrested. In the provincial town of Estelí, police forbade an artist and opponent of the regime to complete his mural painting with a portrait of Palacios. The young man has been missing ever since. TikTok star Cristóbal Acevedo, once a supporter of Ortega's rebels, the Sandinistas, was also arrested for campaigning for Palacios. He is to be imprisoned in the notorious prison »La Modelo«. » The dictatorship criminalizes the Miss Universe celebrations," said exiled journalist Carlos Chamorro on his YouTube channel.

Since her victory, Palacios has not publicly commented on the political situation in her homeland, apparently for fear of repression. In particular, a photo on social media showing her alongside well-known musician and opposition figure Carlos Mejía Godoy surrounded by national flags during a protest march in 2018 aroused the ire of the government. As "Miss Barricade," she had Palacios mocked.

The government derided her as a "Miss Barricade"

During her coronation, Palacios had worn a dress in the national colors, blue and white. Critics of the regime saw this as a show of solidarity with the opposition: the government had banned the use of national symbols such as the flag and the national anthem on non-official occasions after the 2018 protests because they had become a symbol of Ortega's opponents. Devout Nicaraguans believed that some of the beauty queen's clothes also contained religious allusions. The Catholic Church is seen as the spearhead of the opposition to Ortega, and many clerics have been arrested. When Palacios was asked on a television show about the competition whose skin she would like to slip into, she named Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th-century British philosopher and feminist. "As far as I know, you've never heard of a beauty queen invoking a heroine and pioneer of modern feminism," exiled Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli posted on Facebook. She felt "enormous joy" when she heard this "brilliant answer," Belli wrote.

Palacios comes from a poor background, her mother raised the family alone. With the help of a scholarship, she studied communication studies at the Central American University in Managua, which was one of the focal points of the resistance against the regime during the 2018 protests and was later closed by the government. The regime called the university a "center of terrorism." To survive, Palacios sold buñuelos, a type of sweet pastry. A well-known pro-government TV presenter mocked her as "Miss Krapfen". Palacios, she advocated for people with mental disabilities. She herself had suffered from anxiety attacks in the past, she confessed on television. She dedicated her victory to all the girls who "dream so big that people think it's impossible to make them happen." But dreams, she said, can "overcome all barriers."