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Castro's death puts renewed focus on Trump's Cuba policy

| WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. U.S. President Barack Obama offered a "hand of friendship" to Cubans on Saturday after the death of Fidel Castro, while his successor, Republican President-elect Donald Trump gave his first reaction on Twitter, declaring "Fidel Castro is dead!"

Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, threatened during his campaign that concerns about religious freedom in Cuba could prompt him to reverse President Barack Obama's moves to open relations with Cold War adversary Cuba after more than a half-century's estrangement.

Obama said Castro's death was an emotional moment for Cubans and Cuban-Americans because of the "countless ways" Castro "altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation."

"At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people," Obama said, offering condolences to Castro's family, but noting his administration had "worked hard to put the past behind us."

Republicans closely await what Trump - a billionaire businessman known for his unconventional approach to politics and policy - will do on Cuba once he takes office.

In initial comments, two prominent lawmakers from Trump's Republican Party said Castro's death would not ease Cuba's communist rule.

A bloc of mostly Republican Cuban-American lawmakers has worked to keep tight restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba for years. Some U.S. Republican lawmakers broke with party orthodoxy to back Obama's reforms, drawn by the economic benefits of restoring ties.

But many have chafed against the changes, saying Cuba's government was still too repressive to ease restrictions.

Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Saturday that Castro left a legacy of "repression at home, and support for terrorism abroad."

"Sadly, Raul Castro is no better for Cubans who yearn for freedom," Royce said in a statement, referring to Fidel's younger brother, who has led the country since 2008.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a senior Republican House lawmaker from Florida who fled Cuba as a child, said on CNN that Fidel Castro's death changes nothing.

"We lost our native homeland to communism," Ros-Lehtinen said. "They just rule over Cuba with an iron fist."

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Hugh Lawson and W Simon)

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