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Just before midnight on July 21, Jacira Castro sat down at her computer and called up the Internet site she publishes, www.salsapower.com. But she didn't see her home page. Instead the words THIS IS A COMMUNIST WEBSITE appeared on the screen.

More than just the home page had been vandalized; Castro, a Web designer and salsa dance teacher who lives in Davie and has publicized musicians who live in Cuba, found vitriol elsewhere on the site. "I am a true communist, pro-[Fidel] Castro, unethical narrow-minded individual," read the altered text under her own photograph. "I have burned bridges with most of South Florida's dance school directors and leading politicians because of my political views and actions within the Cuban community. I am a declared Communist activist and proud of it!"

Evidence left by the hacker points to another Website: www.salsaunited.com. Salsa United is a loose association of about a dozen dance schools in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Jolexy Hurtado, a talented dancer, is the official spokesman for Salsa United. "It might look bad, but I know for a fact it had nothing to do with Salsa United," he says. "No way in hell she could prove that.... I have no idea who did it, but I know Jacira has a lot of enemies in this town."

Two things are clear. There's a lot of money to be made teaching casino-style salsa, the intricate system of steps that originated in Cuba and is performed by dancers in a rueda (circle). And there's some bad blood among the 25 or so Broward and Miami-Dade schools that teach it.

Early this month the owners, including Hurtado, of 11 salsa schools that are members of Salsa United twice sent Castro e-mails demanding she remove their schools from her listings pages. "If our requests are not granted," one letter reads, "we will be forced to take legal action."

Castro estimates it has cost her and a partner roughly $2000 to fix the damage to the site. Though the penalties for hacking under federal law are serious -- a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 or as much as twice the gross loss to the victim -- the FBI is unlikely to investigate. "The bottom line is we just don't have enough agents to work small cases," says Miami FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela.

Another local pissing match pits outrigger-canoe enthusiast John Gage against the hidebound City of Fort Lauderdale. All Gage wants to do is spread the gospel of paddling, but Big Brother stands in his way. Or so Gage says.

Gage, who is by his own account "not sane," came to Florida from Waikiki, Hawaii, in 1995. "They ran me out of town," he says. "It's illegal to be a nut, you know."

He brought his love of outrigger paddling with him and founded the Las Olas Canoe Club to attract South Floridians to the sport. One problem: Outrigger canoes are 45 feet long -- about the length of a semitrailer -- and thus difficult to haul behind a car. So Gage wanted to stash his at Fort Lauderdale beach, opposite the Oasis Café, right next to the strip where catamaran owners keep their boats. The city granted him permission in 1997 to keep two canoes on the sand, for which Gage pays $1200 a year. But the club has since blossomed to 60 members, and it desperately needs more space.

Gage stores his canoes in an area unusable by catamarans; in that spot they must be lifted up and over other boats. He'd like to tuck all seven of his outriggers away in the same, awkward place.

But the city has been unmoved by Gage's entreaties. "He thinks there is room, but I don't think there is," says Stu Marvin, Beach Patrol operations manager. "The area is very congested." Plus there's a waiting list with 28 names on it, he adds. Most of those want a place to put their catamarans or small sailboats: in other words, more of the same.

Gage believes he's being snubbed because he's bringing a new sport to the beach and because he refuses to brownnose with the city officials who could make life easier for him. "Boats, I understand," he says. "People, I don't."

Yes, we were being a little tongue-in-cheek a few weeks back when we wondered in print if the departure of publisher Paul Anger spelled doom for the Broward edition of the once-mighty Miami Herald. Publishers don't do a damn thing, and everybody knows it.

Then on July 31 veteran editorial writer Wingate Payne took a buyout. Undercurrents thinks this one's going to hurt.

With the exception of a few years off to raise kids, Payne has been a journalist in Broward since 1967. She started by covering courts, the county commission, and the sheriff's office. Her résumé also includes stints as The Herald's Hollywood bureau chief and an editorial writer for the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale News.

She's been writing Broward editorials and making political endorsements at The Herald since 1983. "I filed 675 candidate questionnaires," she says. "That's the number of candidates I've interviewed in the last 18 years."

No amount of money can buy that kind of institutional memory. "There is no mathematical substitute," says Herald editor Tom Fiedler. "[We] cannot replicate that experience no matter how many people we throw at it."

Payne, who is 56 years old, got a juicy buyout offer and figured it was as good a time as any for a career change. "I'm too young to get old doing the same thing," she says.

Undercurrents bids adios to Frank Vargas, who died August 6 of a heart attack at age 42.

Vargas appeared in these pages many times and always for the right reasons -- as a crusader for equal-opportunity housing, a consumer advocate, a leader, and a successful entrepreneur. He was direct and fair and dealt with people as a man who fully understood that time is a finite resource not to be wasted on chicanery. When the Latin Builders Association wanted to expand from Miami-Dade County into Broward, it chose Vargas to lead the charge. But he didn't like the political folderol that is integral to that organization, so he quit. Same story after he was appointed to the Broward County Charter Review Commission last April -- too much insiderism, too many egos, too few good intentions.

We'll miss Vargas every time politics gets in the way of common sense.

Last, the National Association of Black Journalists has awarded New Times staff writer Bob Norman's tale "The Miseducation of Wesley Armstrong" first place in an enterprise reporting contest for small newspapers. Way to go, Bob.

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Kathy Glasgow
Contact: Kathy Glasgow
Bob Whitby

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