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CARACAS, Venezuela – For most Venezuelans, these are trying times. Inflation is running at a two-decade high, salaries are being corroded by a plunging currency and basic goods like milk and toilet paper are in short supply. But even as the economy shows signs of imploding, the country still churns out beauty, as evidenced by Maria Gabriela Isler's pocketing Saturday of the country's third Miss Universe title in six years.
Within minutes of Isler's crowning in Moscow, President Nicolas Maduro sent his congratulations over Twitter, celebrating her performance as a "triumph for Venezuela."
Opponents of his socialist government also expressed pride.
"There's no doubt we have the most beautiful women of the world," said Marco Sandoval, a 68-year-old retiree, as he and dozens of others marched in Caracas against the government in a protest hastily-organized over the Internet. "But nothing is perfect. We also have the most corrupt and shameless politicians in the world."
Born in the city of Valencia, the 25-year-old Isler works as an anchor for Venevision, a channel owned by the Cisneros business group that also has the rights to the annual Miss Venezuela pageant, one of the nation's most-watched televised events. The 5-foot, 10-inch brunette edged out finalists from Spain, Brazil, Ecuador and the Philippines to take the crown in its 61st edition.
Venezuela has won more major international beauty competitions than any other nation, including now seven Miss Universe titles, and beauty queens rank alongside baseball players and oil as the country's biggest exports. A whole industry of grooming schools, plastic surgeons and beauty salons has emerged to prepare young women for the thousands of pageants that take place each year around the country in schools, army barracks and even prisons.
More recently this obsession with beauty has taken a backseat to more mundane concerns, as soaring inflation of 54 percent and worsening shortages of basic goods makes it harder for families to put food on the table.
Driving the crisis has been a collapse in the currency, which has plunged to a tenth of its official value in illegal black market trading. To arrest the fall, Maduro last week ordered the military to inspect prices and shut down businesses found to be charging abusive prices. A day after the government seized control of a nationwide chain of appliance stores, doors reopened Saturday to throngs of shoppers seeking to buy televisions, washing machines and refrigerators at a fraction of their listed price.
Associated Press Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Caracas.