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Nicaragua’ accuses Miss Universe officials of beauty queen coup

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MEXICO CITY — As Nicaragua has marched steadily toward dictatorship in recent years, its government has attacked opposition politicians, the Catholic Church, journalists and universities.

Now it’s going after the beauty queens.

Just when authorities appeared to have squelched all forms of dissent, a willowy, 23-year-old Nicaraguan, Sheynnis Palacios, won the Miss Universe pageant on Nov. 18. People poured into the streets of the Central American country in jubilation. The government initially praised the victory — then photos emerged of Palacios taking part in mass anti-government protests in 2018, which were eventually crushed by security forces.

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Since the pageant, the tall, soft-spoken brunette has become a symbol of national pride and Nicaraguans’ longing for change. Now President Daniel Ortega’s government is striking back.

On Friday night, Nicaraguan police accused the family that operates the country’s Miss Universe franchise of “conspiring against the nation.” A police statement said Karen Celebertti, a former beauty queen who has run the Miss Nicaragua contest since 2001, had used “spaces supposedly dedicated to promoting ‘innocent’ beauty pageants,” in a foreign-backed plot to boost the opposition. Her husband and son were also named in the complaint.

Analysts said the attack on the Miss Universe franchise was the latest sign of paranoia from a government that has jailed or deported nearly all opposition leaders, stripped news organizations of their licenses and imprisoned Catholic bishops and priests.

“It’s this weird amalgam of fear on their part, combined with a sense of impunity,” said Ricardo Zúniga, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former top State Department official for Latin America affairs.

Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife and government spokeswoman, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Ortega, now 78, helped lead a leftist revolution that toppled Anastasio Somoza, a right-wing dictator, in 1979. More than four decades later, Nicaragua remains one of the poorest and most politically oppressed countries in the Western Hemisphere. Since the crushing of the 2018 protests, the number of Nicaraguans fleeing to seek U.S. asylum has surged. A recent study by AmericasBarometer found that half the population wanted to emigrate.

Palacios was the first Central American to win Miss Universe, and her triumph brought a rare moment of joy to the downtrodden nation. But the government appeared unnerved as people took to the streets in celebration, waving Nicaragua’s blue-and-white flag. That’s a jailable offense in a country where the flag has become a symbol of protest. Murillo, who is also vice president, blasted the demonstrators for trying to “convert a beautiful and justified moment of pride and celebration into a destructive coup.”

The security forces sprung into action. When Celebertti flew home after the pageant on Nov. 23, she was barred from entering Nicaragua, according to media reports. She’s reported to be in Mexico. Last Tuesday, police detained her husband and son at their home in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, according to media reports. The government has not provided information about their whereabouts.

The police document said that Celebertti, her husband and son had participated in the 2018 anti-government protests. After the uprising was extinguished — in a crackdown that claimed more than 300 lives — the family maintained contact with “supporters of treason,” according to the complaint. They allegedly turned the Miss Nicaragua pageants into “political ambushes” aimed at undermining the government with support from “foreign agents,” the police said.

Celebertti’s lawyers and relatives declined to comment on the case. Palacios, who won the Miss Nicaragua contest in August, was not named in the statement.

The police statement warned that Celebertti, her husband and son would “have to serve sentences set out by Nicaraguan law.” They face charges including organized crime and funding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. (It wasn’t clear whether the weapon was Miss Universe).

Nicaragua’s Ortega puts the political opposition on trial

Palacios might seem an unlikely threat to the Ortega government. She’s not even in Nicaragua; she recently moved to New York for her Miss Universe duties. Her old Facebook account, on which she had posted photos of herself at the 2018 protests, has been taken down. She hasn’t said anything publicly about the country’s politics.

Still, she exudes the kind of appeal that could be difficult for Ortega to counter.

While Palacios wowed the Miss Universe audience with her elegance, sweeping across the stage in a silver gown and light blue cape, she comes from a humble background. She put herself through college by winning scholarships and selling buñuelos, a sweet fried treat.

She has emphasized her Catholic faith, at a time when the Church in Nicaragua is under siege. The government has practically severed relations with the Vatican and seized control of Palaciaos’ alma mater, the Jesuit-run University of Central America.

“She is deeply Nicaraguan, in a way that appeals to almost everyone,” Zúniga said. “There’s nobody on the General Staff who’s saying, ‘I wish we could clock her on the head and drag her to jail.’”

The United States, the European Union and Canada have slapped sanctions on senior officials in Ortega’s government, including Murillo, for anti-democratic behavior and corruption. Yet they have not appeared to make much difference. In January 2022, Ortega was inaugurated for a fourth consecutive presidential term, after what the Biden administration called a “pantomime election” with no real competition allowed.

Nicaragua’s government has asserted ever more control over social and political life in the last few years, closing down more than 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, including Mother Teresa’s missionaries and a local branch of the Rotary Club. Authorities have accused some of being foreign agents.

But can it control a beauty queen? Last month, police stopped some artists in the northern city of Estelí from painting a mural of Miss Universe, according to media reports. The image was painted over. But in a video making the rounds on social media, a Nicaraguan rapper known as Witto El Menor sings an homage to the beauty queen.

“In your silhouette, I see my flag,” he raps, holding aloft the blue-and-white Nicaraguan flag. “You reflect the constant fight of our country to get ahead.”

Ismael Lopez in San Jose, Costa Rica contributed to this report.

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