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EL GUAYABO, Cuba – The single dirt street in El Guayabo runs past a few dozen cinderblock homes, the medical clinic and the primary school to a grove of 76 trees planted to honor Fidel Castro on his 76th birthday.
On Friday, residents of El Guayabo will walk that street a mile to Cuba's central highway to bid a final farewell to the man they credit for bringing medical care, education and basic comforts to this hamlet in the farming and ranching country of arid, sun-scorched eastern Cuba.
"We owe him everything," said Rafael Toledo, a 71-year-old rancher. "There'll never be another one like him."
Mourning for Castro has reached near-religious peaks of public adulation across Cuba since his death at age 90 on Nov. 25. Huge crowds have been shouting his name and lining the roads to salute the funeral procession carrying his ashes from Havana to the eastern city of Santiago.
In the cities some of the ceremony has been undercut by grumbling about Cuba's autocratic government, inefficient bureaucracy and stagnant economy. The outpouring has seemed the most heartfelt in Cuba's east, the region his ashes are crossing Friday.
Castro was born in eastern Cuba. His revolution started here, and it's here and in other parts of rural Cuba where his campaigns for literacy, social welfare and land redistribution had their deepest impact.
"Before the revolution, the countryside wasn't what you see now," Toledo said. "My parents were sharecroppers, cane-cutters. They did what they could to support a family of 12, but they couldn't even sign their names. When they died they were literate and had a house with electricity, television and a refrigerator."
For many foreigners, landing in Havana feels like traveling back in time, to an era of 1950s cars and Art Deco homes unpainted for decades. Heading into the countryside is another step back — to a region where farmers plow with oxen and people travel by horse-cart. But, thanks to Castro's programs, there are also neighborhood health clinics, small-town libraries and specialized high schools with dance and arts instructors.
Before the revolution, El Guayabo was a family estate with a cheese factory owned by a Cuban family who fled to the United States after Castro and his rebel army took power. The land was distributed to those working it under agricultural reforms that Castro began in 1959.
Still, while rural Cubans' lives have improved with the arrival of doctors and teachers in once-ignored backwaters, it has been a struggle to earn a living under the island's one-party socialist government and its stifling economic rules.
More than five decades after the revolution, much of the countryside is deeply unproductive and Cuba imports a large percentage of its food. Weeds choke unproductive fields and ranches are without cattle. Many young people are moving to the cities, or leaving Cuba entirely.
Yudisleidy Borges and her husband, Julio Cesar Camejo, want to start a small dairy in Santa Elena in central Cuba's Ciego de Avila province but are struggling with a centrally planned system that maintains a monopoly on all agricultural inputs.
"The issue of getting the supplies that we need, the feed and the equipment, is serious," Camejo said.
Yet, Borges said, the problems of life in the countryside don't sour the appreciation she feels for Castro's socialist system.
"In central and eastern Cuba, people have always followed Fidel," she said.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this report.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ARodriguezAP
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein