MEXICO CITY (OSV News) ─ Nicaraguans spilled into the streets after Sheynnis Palacios was crowned Miss Universe, celebrating the success of a countrywoman rising from humble origins to international acclaim.
They showed unbridled expressions of pride and patriotism, waiving the country's blue-and-white flag -- a symbol seen as subversive by the ruling Sandinista regime, which has imposed its own red-and-black banner in its place. They also risked the regime's wrath by congregating in public -- violating rules against public assembly so severe that even feast day processions have been prohibited.
"It's been a true explosion of joy for Nicaraguans that no one could stop," said Father Edwin Román, a Nicaraguan priest now exiled in Miami.
"This is much more than a beauty contest for Nicaraguans," Yader Morazán, an exiled Nicaraguan lawyer, told OSV News.
"Miss Universe 2023 has become a patriotic symbol, which embodies the history of a poor, humble and suffering people, but a hard-working people, too, with dreams, personal drive and desires of freedom," Morazán said.
Her victory also came as a rare moment of relief for Nicaragua, which exploded in protests against the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in 2018 -- only to be violently suppressed by police and paramilitaries. The regime also cracked down on dissent, imprisoned and exiled dissidents and has persecuted the Catholic church -- most notoriously arresting and convicting Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who remains behind bars.
"Thank you for making the name of our country shine in your beauty! Thank you for bringing joy to our long-suffering country!," Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez wrote on X after the pageant. "Thank you for giving us hope for a better future for our beautiful country!"
But no sooner had Palacios claimed the crown in the Nov. 18 pageant than the Central American country's increasingly totalitarian regime politicized the accomplishment, attempting to seize it for themselves.
The regime initially congratulated Palacios, expressing "legitimate pride and joy," in a statement.
But the victory and expressions of support put the regime in a bind: pro-government media spoke poorly of Palacios prior to the pageant. And it was later revealed that her name appeared on an airline list of passengers to be denied reentry into Nicaragua -- a form of exile imposed on regime critics.
The organizer of Miss Nicaragua pageant was subsequently denied reentry into the country, according to CNN.
"They had to juggle their dislike of the miss and what she represents, especially to young people, without openly opposing an overwhelming public sentiment of joy and pride that her victory triggered," Tiziano Breda, researcher at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, told OSV News.
Murillo, the regime spokeswoman, later lashed out at critics, saying, "In these days of a new victory, we are seeing the evil, terrorist commentators making a clumsy and insulting attempt to turn what should be a beautiful and well-deserved moment of pride into destructive coup-mongering," according to The Associated Press.
Palacios was the first Nicaraguan and the first woman from Central America to claim the Miss Universe title. Her blue-and-white jeweled gown was thought to be a tribute to the Virgin Mary, though others said it was inspired by the national flag.
She grew up Catholic as the daughter of a single mother, who moved to the United States to support the family. Palacios graduated with a communications degree from the Jesuit-run Central American University -- recently seized and renamed by the regime -- earning scholarships and selling buñuelos (a fried dough fritter) to fund her studies.
In an interview with ABS-CBN after her victory, Palacios spoke about her faith. "I am a Christian person, Catholic person and to me, prayer is a way that makes me feel more comfortable," she said. "When I say thanks, God, it is because this crown is not mine, it's for him. It's all for all the delegates and it’s also for my country and my family."
"Sheynnis is an exemplary young woman of a lot of effort, sacrifice, dedication to winning this pageant and other beauty contests, but also of Christian faith and values transmitted in her home as she refers to her mother and grandmother, in addition to good academic preparation in schools and Catholic universities," Father Román said.
Palacios posted a photo attending a 2018 protest on Facebook, but deleted it, according to The Associated Press. She has steered clear of politics since becoming Miss Universe, telling CNN, "I want to say that I am very happy to bring joy to my country, to really see that each one of them is enjoying this triumph just like me."
Father Román urged Nicaraguans to keep Palacios out of politics.
"They should distinguish it is not her role. She's an ambassador of universal beauty," Father Román said. "The Sandinista dictatorship must not try to manipulate her image."
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David Agren writes for OSV News from Mexico City.