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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelans have trouble agreeing on anything these days, whether it's who really won the election to replace Hugo Chavez or who to blame for this South American nation's mounting economic woes.

But for a few gala-filled hours, they put all that aside to embrace a shared national obsession: beauty. In what is traditionally the country's most-watched television event, millions tuned in Thursday night to watch as 18-year-old Migbelis Castellanos was crowned Miss Venezuela.

The 5-foot-7-inch, green-eyed blonde is a political science and communications college student from the state of Zulia. The youngest of 26 finalists competing for the crown, she'll represent Venezuela at next year's Miss Universe pageant.

Even as regular Venezuelans struggle to contend with galloping inflation, shortages of basic goods such as toilet paper and strict currency controls, the beauty contest, now in its 61st edition, is experiencing something of a rebirth.

After four years of reduced budgets and smaller venues, the pageant returned this year to Caracas' main indoor arena, the Poliedro, with a capacity of 15,000. Interest was also piqued by a new reality show beamed across Latin America, called "Miss Venezuela: Everything for the Crown," which followed the finalists as they learned to walk, talk and smile their way to glory.

Venezuela has won more major international beauty competitions than any other nation, including six Miss Universe titles, and beauty pageants rank alongside baseball as the country's most-followed diversion, one that transcends social class. 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.

"It doesn't matter if you're Chavista or a government opponent, this is one sin we all share," Jose Luiz Martinez, a 21-year-old college student, said yesterday in downtown Caracas.

As if to prove that point, Maria Eugenia Enriquez, wearing a red shirt stamped with the piercing gaze of the late Chavez, said she never misses the festivities.

"I'm a revolutionary but I like to watch the show with my entire family," said Enriquez.

"Miss Venezuela is as much ours as the arepa," she said, referring to the corn cake that's an emblematic part of the country's diet.

Last night's show was expected to draw more than two-thirds of the television audience, according to Venevision, the network responsible for organizing and broadcasting the pageant.

While the self-styled 21st century socialist revolution implemented a decade ago by Chavez drove a wedge in Venezuelan society, the scale of political vitriol has intensified since the charismatic leader's death in March and the narrow victory by his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, over opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who has accused Maduro of stealing the vote. In turn, Maduro has slammed his critics as "lackeys" of the U.S. empire conspiring to destabilize the government.

The country's problems weren't visible under the bright lights last night, politics did nudge their way into the question and answer period, when the candidate for Caracas, Andrea Lira, said that more than chasing an ideal of beauty, she dreams of one day transforming her divided nation.

"I want my country to be a country that isn't complacent and that continues to struggle in the face of adversity so that we can come together in spite of our differences," she said in remarks that elicited extended applause from the audience.


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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