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The beauty queen who terrifies a dictator

Nicaragua’s bizarre autocratic regime gives the impression it’s in total control. So why does Miss Universe pose such a threat?

Miss Universe 2023, Sheynnis Palacio of Nicaragua.Hector Vivas/Getty

Nicaragua has a new queen. The dictatorship is terrified.

At a glittering ceremony on Nov. 18, a 23-year-old Nicaraguan beauty named Sheynnis Palacios was crowned Miss Universe. It was the first time anyone from Central America had won the title. Nicaraguans, beaten down for years by oppression, poverty, and mass migration, exploded in ecstasy. They poured out of their houses and celebrated spontaneously on streets and in plazas, waving the blue-and-white Nicaraguan flag. Nothing like this has happened for years in tyrannized Nicaragua. It was as if the country’s soccer team had won the World Cup.

Those were honest outbursts of joy, but they were also provocative because the regime prefers the flag of the ruling Sandinista Front. Worse yet, Palacios was crowned while wearing a flowing blue-and-white outfit. The regime reacted with an astonishing decree: Miss Universe was banned from coming home.

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The second-place finisher, who is from Thailand, was welcomed home with a jubilant parade in Bangkok. Nicaragua’s leaders feared something similar, but with political implications. Literally overnight, Palacios became a symbol of hope for a suffering nation. The regime fears that if she so much as sets foot on Nicaraguan soil, she might set off a wave of national passion that could swell out of control. It is a reasonable fear.

Nicaragua is ruled by a uniquely bizarre two-headed regime. President Daniel Ortega governs with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also vice president and, as Ortega puts it, “co-president.” He rarely appears in public, but she is on television nearly every day and is widely considered the ultimate decision-maker. Comparisons to Lady Macbeth abound. A more apt comparison might be to the Ceausescu couple that harshly ruled Romania until 1989, when husband and wife were executed in a sudden uprising. The Ortega-Murillo regime, known in Nicaragua as OrMu, is determined to avoid such an end. It saw a sudden threat. It’s as if OrMu asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall — who is the fairest Nicaraguan of all?” and the mirror replied, “Sheynnis Palacios.”

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OrMu was suspicious of Palacios even before she was crowned Miss Universe. Nicaraguans identify with her in part because, like most of them, she grew up poor. While in college, she supported herself by selling sweet pastries called buñuelos. She took up modeling and won several local beauty titles. In 2018 she joined nationwide protests against the OrMu dictatorship that were suppressed at the cost of more than 300 lives. That cast a shadow of suspicion on her. Later she posted a photo of herself proudly holding her diploma from Central American University — a school that the dictatorship seized in August on the grounds that it had become a nest of subversion.

Rosario Murillo and Daniel Ortega in 2018.Alfredo Zuniga/Associated Press

Media outlets controlled by the regime heaped scorn on Palacios as she prepared for the Miss Universe contest. One said she was better suited to be “Miss Buñuelos.” When she appeared in a costume shaped like a Nicaraguan grackle, a website controlled by the ruling family ran a story headlined “The Grackle Is a Bird That Lives Off Garbage and Insects.”

In the first hours after Palacios won her title, OrMu reacted quietly. “With legitimate pride and happiness,” it said in an unsigned statement, “Nicaragua celebrates the coronation of its beautiful representative, Sheynnis Palacios, as Miss Universe.” Over the next hours and days, the tone changed sharply. Artists who were painting a mural of Miss Universe in the northern town of Estelí were told to stop — and to paint over their half-finished work. Then Murillo, the public face of OrMu, broadcast a rant against “vampires” and “coup plotters” who she said were planning “manufactured provocations” in the guise of celebrating Miss Universe.

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“Crazy-evil fatheads should stop trying to take advantage of so much Nicaraguan beauty, happiness, and talent,” she warned in her inimitable style. “They can’t be allowed to use the deserved triumph of a pretty girl to hide their insignificance and incapacity, or to muddy our blessed waters with their ridiculous and tacky delirium.”

Palacios now begins a year-long reign devoted largely to travel. One country she may not be able to visit is her own. Nicaragua is bereft of civic life after a five-year rampage during which OrMu has seized or closed hundreds of nongovernment institutions ranging from the Academy of Science to an order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa. Next in line will likely be the local branch of Miss Universe.

This suffocating political climate, in which even cheering for Miss Universe is seen as subversive, is made worse by the apparent bleakness of Nicaragua’s future. OrMu has been in power for 16 years and has crushed any hope for change. Nicaraguans are fleeing their homeland by the hundreds of thousands. Those who remain are desperate for something positive and beautiful.

“The victory of Sheynnis is a ray of hope, of possible new futures,” wrote the exiled Nicaraguan journalist Franklin Villavicencio. “Figures like her are important because they show value systems different from the authoritarianism that shapes daily life.”

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By all appearances, the OrMu regime is in total control of Nicaragua. Yet it cannot abide Miss Universe. Beneath the surface, Nicaragua is churning.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.