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February is Women's History Month!

Nicaragua's government clamps down on this year's Miss Universe pageant winner

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The government of Nicaragua has become increasingly authoritarian. Over the past year, they have exiled political foes, poets, journalists who are considered threats. Now they have a new target - the winner of this year's Miss Universe pageant. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: This was the moment that made Nicaragua erupt into revelry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The new Miss Universe is Nicaragua.

(APPLAUSE)

PERALTA: On stage, 23-year-old Sheynnis Palacios got her crown. She cried. She waved. She disappeared into the arms of her fellow beauty queens. And in Nicaragua, something happened that had not happened in a long time.

LUIS: (Through interpreter) On the streets, there was only happiness. People took to the streets.

ROBERTO: (Through interpreter) We hadn't seen anything like that since the big protests in 2018. We saw police trucks, but they didn't do anything to us. Everyone danced. Everyone drank beer.

ROSA: (Through interpreter) You could say viva Sheynnis. You could chant another name that wasn't Daniel or Rosario.

PERALTA: That's Luis, Roberto and Rosa, three young Nicaraguans who took to the streets that day. They asked we only use their first names because since 2018, the government has punished any critical speech. It's been that way in Nicaragua since the government cracked down on huge anti-government demonstrations. Police killed hundreds of protesters. And the government of President Daniel Ortega, who has been in power off and on for nearly 30 years, jailed or exiled nearly all his critics, everyone from singers to poets to a prominent Catholic bishop. But that day, when Sheynnis Palacios became the first Central American to win Miss Universe, Nicaragua felt different, says Rosa.

ROSA: (Through interpreter) We felt freedom. You could carry your flag. You could scream for joy.

PERALTA: Even the government issued a statement congratulating Palacios, but that didn't last. Quickly, the government learned that Palacios had joined the protests as a college student in 2018, and Vice President Rosario Murillo switched tacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT ROSARIO MURILLO: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "We see this as a brute attempt," she says, "an evil terrorist plot to turn something beautiful into a destructive coup attempt." The director of Miss Universe Nicaragua was denied entry into her own country and then charged with sedition for, quote, "trying to turn beauty pageants into political ambushes" and using them to, quote, "incite hate, violence and organized crime." This week, the director resigned. Elvira Cuadra has studied the Nicaraguan security apparatus for decades.

ELVIRA CUADRA: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "There's a rationale behind this," she says, "because President Daniel Ortega, who is 78, is planning for succession. His wife, Rosario Murillo, who is now his vice president, and his children have taken over important matters of state. None of them have the revolutionary creds he does. And Ortega knows there is vast discontent and little respect for his wife and kids," Cuadra says, "so any little public demonstration..."

CUADRA: (Through interpreter) ...Can easily bloom into something else.

PERALTA: As for the celebrations, they ended as quickly as they started. Rosa says, at the time, it felt like something was about to change in Nicaragua. In the least, she says, she thought Sheynnis Palacios would come back home victorious to adoring masses.

ROSA: (Through interpreter) We now know it'll be the first and last time we'll celebrate as long as this government is in power.

PERALTA: Now, she says, it's not even clear that Miss Universe will even be allowed to enter her own country.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.