Nicaragua’s increasingly isolated and repressive government thought it had scored a rare public relations victory last week when Miss Nicaragua Sheynnis Palacios won the Miss Universe competition.
But the “legitimate joy and pride” President Daniel Ortega’s government expressed in a statement Sunday after the win quickly turned to angry condemnation, after it emerged that Palacios graduated from a college that was the center of 2018 protests against the regime — and apparently participated in the marches.
Ordinary Nicaraguans — who are largely forbidden to protest or carry the national flag in marches — took advantage of the Saturday night Miss Universe win as a rare opportunity to celebrate in the streets.
Their use of the blue-and-white national flag, as opposed to Ortega’s red-and-black Sandinista banner, didn’t sit well with the government.
Palacios’ victory — along with photos she posted on Facebook in 2018 of herself participating in the protests — overjoyed Nicaragua’s opposition.
Roman Catholic Rev. Silvio Báez, one of dozens of priests who have been jailed or forced into exile by the government, congratulated Palacios in his social media accounts.
“Thank you for bringing joy to our long-suffering country!,” Báez wrote. “Thank you for giving us hope for a better future for our beautiful country!”
With clunky rhetoric reminiscent of North Korea, Vice president and First Lady Rosario Murillo lashed out Wednesday at opposition social media sites (many run from exile) that celebrated Palacios’ win as a victory for the opposition.
“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,” Murillo said.
Thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down mass anti-government protests in 2018. Ortega says the protests were an attempted coup with foreign backing, aiming for his overthrow.
Ortega’s government seized and closed the Jesuit University of Central America in Nicaragua, which was a hub for 2018 protests against the Ortega regime, along with at least 26 other Nicaraguan universities.
The government has also outlawed or closed more than 3,000 civic groups and non-governmental organizations, arrested and expelled opponents, stripped them of their citizenship and confiscated their assets.
Palacios, who became the first Nicaraguan to win Miss Universe, has not commented on the situation.
During the contest, Palacios, 23, said she wants to work to promote mental health after suffering debilitating bouts of anxiety herself. She also said she wants to work to close the salary gap between the genders so that women can work in any area.
But on a since-deleted Facebook account under her name, Palacios posted photos of herself at a protest, writing she had initially been afraid of participating. “I didn’t know whether to go, I was afraid of what might happen.”
Some who attended the march that day recall seeing the tall, striking Palacios there.
The protests were quickly put down and in the end, human rights officials say 355 people were killed by government forces.