Authoritarian regimes resort to any pretext to try to give themselves a facelift and offer society a reason for national pride. The Miss Universe pageant is one of those events, exploited by some governments to gain international projection. The most recent gala was held on November 19 in El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele took the opportunity to campaign and to vindicate himself. The winner was a 23-year-old Nicaraguan, Sheynnis Palacios. However, the coronation of the young woman has made the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo uncomfortable. Once again, the machinery of repression has been set in motion. The reason is not the reprehensible logic of beauty contests, but the fact that Palacios participated in the last great wave of protests against the Sandinista apparatus in 2018.
Palacios’ triumph was a galvanizing moment for thousands of people, who celebrated in the streets en masse as if it had been a victory in a sports event. Many young Nicaraguans also identified with her story, as she had sold fritters to pay for her university studies. At the same time, Palacios was the target of attacks over a viral photo in which she appeared with the singer Carlos Mejía Godoy during the 2018 mobilizations.
But the regime’s reaction has gone even further. First, it arrested a TikToker who rejected the criticisms made against Palacios. Then it banished the director of the Miss Nicaragua franchise, Karen Celebertti, who had traveled to El Salvador to accompany Palacios. A government spokesman has linked the celebrations to U.S. interests and Murillo, the vice president, has spoken directly of “destructive coups.”
The Miss Universe affair reflects the insomniac delirium in which Ortega and Murillo live. Its scope is minor in comparison with the daily drama suffered by the population and a multitude of opponents, exiles, and banished, but it is a revealing example of the degree of intolerance of the Sandinista leadership toward any hint of dissidence. Added to this are two recent decisions which have aggravated the institutional crisis in Managua and the international isolation of the Central American country.
In mid-November, Murillo carried out a major purge of the judiciary with the dismissal of more than 900 employees, including the president of the Supreme Court of Justice. And last week, Nicaragua officially withdrew from the Organization of American States (OAS) after rejecting criticism of the Managua government for multiple human rights violations. A particularly worrisome step, since in view of the annihilation of the political opposition within the country, international bodies are the main scenario for mediation to explore — however distant such a prospect may seem — a way out of the dictatorship.
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