In the Sierra Maestra, Castro brothers' revolution lives on

SANTO DOMINGO, Cuba, April 17 (Reuters) - In the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains near where Fidel Castro made his hideout as he led a guerrilla uprising in the late 1950s, Cubans say they are still grateful for the land reforms and modern amenities his leftist revolution brought.

Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul Castro, 86, steps down as president this week. His successor is likely to be 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first time that Communist-run Cuba has had a leader born after the 1959 revolution.

In Santo Domingo, the hamlet closest to the "Comandancia La Plata" where the rebels had their military headquarters, locals say they owe much to the Castros' revolution, despite an ailing economy that Raul Castro's tentative market reforms have failed to fix.

"I have a happy life: I have a place to farm; I have animals," said farmer Paulo Alvarez, 55, whose pigs, turkeys and chickens roam freely around his wooden hut, grunting and squawking. "I thank the revolution for that. It was not like this before."

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In the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro brothers' revolution lives on
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In the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro brothers' revolution lives on

Farmer Javier Tamayo, 55, poses for a photograph with his grandson outside his home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Bananas are being prepared for lunch in the kitchen of a house in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Mountains are seen from La Plata, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, April 1, 2018. The view is photographed from the path which, according to a local official guide, was used by Fidel Castro on the way to the "Comandancia La Plata" where the rebels had their military headquarters. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A hen and her chicks are seen inside a farm near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Farmer Irene Fernandez, 65, smokes a cigarette at her home in the village of Cerrito de Naua, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A path leading to the "Comandancia La Plata" is seen in La Plata, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, April 1, 2018. According to a local official guide, Fidel Castro used the path to reach the military headquarters.

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A horse stands in the mountains near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Farmer Irene Fernandez, 65, sits inside her home in the village of Cerrito de Naua, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Carpenter Raul Suarez, 50, prepares coffee at his home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Local official guide Luis Enrique Perez closes a window of the house where Cuban late President Fidel Castro lived during the Cuban revolution in La Plata, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, April 1, 2018. Perez was able to train as an English teacher, although he gave up teaching because of the low salary. He decided to work as a guide at the Comandancia La Plata instead, which nowadays attracts visitors eager to explore Cuba's political heritage. "I can make better money and also practice my languages with tourists, which is my passion," said Perez. "Raul did many good things to Cuba in the last 10 years," he said, "he has changed the social life of the country, with cooperatives, private business, hotspots, internet, mobiles. Cuba would be the best place to live in the world if state salaries were good enough." 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Branches of palm trees used for building roofs, are stocked in the village of Cerrito de Naua, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Farmer Luca Castillo, 84, poses for a photograph in front of his home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

The village of Santo Domingo is seen in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Hipolito Marrero, 83, smokes a cigar as he commutes on horseback in the mountains near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Mechanic Dayan Nunes, 20, sits on a donkey in the village of La Merced, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, April 1, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Farmer Javier Tamayo, 55, rides his horse in the mountains near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

An ox crosses the main road in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A cat rests inside a farmer's home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A farmer speaks to his neighbour in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Farmer Candido Udaldo goes down the road using a homemade soap box cart in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Farmer Alexander Castillo, 37, talks to a friend at the doorstep of his home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Farmer Paulo Alvarez, 55, poses for a photograph inside his home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. "I have a happy life, I have a place to farm, I have animals," said Alvarez, whose pigs, turkeys and chickens roam freely around his wooden hut, squawking and grunting. "I thank the revolution for that, it was not like this before." 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A chef sits in a food station during the recording of an episode of the popular TV show "Palmas y Canas" in the village of Providencia, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

People watch the recording of an episode of the popular TV show "Palmas y Canas" in the village of Providencia, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

People stand in the back of a truck as they wait to be taken to the recording of an episode of the popular TV show "Palmas y Canas" in the village of Cerrito de Naua, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

People attend the recording of an episode of the popular TV show "Palmas y Canas" in the village of Providencia, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Images of Cuban President Raul Castro (L) and late Cuban President Fidel Castro (R) are displayed inside a community center during the recording of an episode of the popular TV show "Palmas y Canas" in the village of Providencia, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A boy raises the Cuban flag during a daily ceremony held at a school in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, April 2, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Ariana Alarcon (C), 29, sits outside her home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. "We had more trust in Fidel. It seems to me that things are worse now. Transportation is worse and prices are higher," Alacron said. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A family rest outside their home in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

People take a break as they build a house at a farm in the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 29, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Clothes lie to dry in the mountains near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

Luiz Suares (L), 15, and his brother Daniel Suarez, 10, rest at their home in the mountains near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A book from the Cuban Independence, Hero Jose Marti, lies on a table at a house near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

A painting hangs inside a home in the mountains near the village of Santo Domingo, in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, March 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

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Fidel Castro, who ruled for decades before handing off to his brother and who died in retirement in 2016, nationalized many large agricultural properties after coming to power, part of a sharp leftward turn that prompted many Cubans to leave the island and that sent relations with the United States into a long freeze.

Title to land was given free of charge to former tenant farmers, farm laborers and sharecroppers. Many farmers then joined together to work under the umbrella of state and cooperative farms.

The Cuban government also brought medical facilities, schools and paved roads to remote places like Santo Domingo, a village of several hundred inhabitants nestled in the wooded mountains by a river.

Resident Luis Enrique Perez was able to train as an English teacher, although he gave up teaching because of the low salary. Despite the revolution's achievements in social indicators like education, much of Cuba's population scrapes by on state wages, which at around $30 a month are a source of common grumbles.

Perez said he found better paid work as a guide at the Comandancia La Plata, which nowadays attracts visitors exploring Cuba's political heritage.

"I can make better money and also practice my languages with tourists, which is my passion," said Perez, as he pointed to the large bed where Fidel Castro once slept next to a window overlooking the surrounding undergrowth.

Adding a touch of authenticity, a 1950s American fridge stands in the main room with a bullet hole where it is said to have been hit by enemy fire while being carried up the mountains to the "Commandante's" hut.

"Raul did many good things to Cuba in the last 10 years," he said. "He has changed the social life of the country, with cooperatives, private business, hotspots, internet, mobiles."

The younger Castro has opened up Cuba's state-run economy to private enterprise in an attempt to boost growth and trim the state payroll. A surge in tourism over the past few years has fostered that fledgling private sector.

In Santo Domingo, private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts have sprung up alongside the main road, where cows and horses saunter across nonchalantly in search of better pastures.

"Cuba would be the best place to live in the world," said Perez, "if state salaries were good enough."

(Reporting by Alexandre Meneghini in Santo Domingo Writing by Sarah Marsh Editing by Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

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