By Roberta Rampton
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said on Saturday that his administration would "do all it can" once he takes office on Jan. 20 to help increase freedom and prosperity for Cuban people after the death of Fidel Castro.
But his initial reaction to Castro's death sidestepped whether the incoming president would make good on a threat made late in his White House campaign to reverse President Barack Obama's moves to open relations with the Cold War adversary.
Obama used his executive powers on a series of steps to ease trade, travel and financial restrictions against Cuba, arguing it was time to try diplomacy after the half-century-long economic embargo against Cuba had failed to shake the regime.
Trump's first statement on Cuba policy since the Nov. 8 election, issued from his Palm Beach, Florida, resort where he and his family were spending the weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday, did not address whether he would roll back Obama's measures because of concerns about religious and political freedom in Cuba.
"Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty," Trump said in the statement.
"While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve," he said.
Trump has just begun to fill out the top ranks of his national security team, and has not yet named his top diplomat - the secretary of state - who will play a major role in formulating policy on Cuba.
He last week named Mauricio Claver-Carone, a political lobbyist who has strongly criticized Obama's efforts to normalize relations with Cuba and supports maintaining the U.S. embargo against the island, to his transition team at the U.S. Treasury Department.
The agency is responsible for enforcing U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba. Claver-Carone is director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee.
Claver-Carone was not immediately available for comment on Saturday.
Trump's initial statement was viewed by some to mark a softening from his rhetoric on Cuba policy late in the campaign, one U.S. intelligence official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"This may be one place where his business interests prod him to take a more pragmatic course, even if that angers the hard-core, anti-Castro elements of both parties," the official told Reuters.
A second U.S. official noted the foreign policy advisers Trump has named thus far are not known to have any particular interest in Cuba. That may mean Trump's economic team will have more sway over Cuba policy, which could lead to a more pragmatic approach, the second official said.
An aggressive policy by Trump would close off lucrative opportunities to U.S. businesses and hand them to European or Asian firms, and would hurt companies like American Airlines , due to start commercial flights to Havana on Monday for the first time in half a century.
WHAT WILL TRUMP DO?
Trump - a New York businessman and former reality TV star with an unconventional approach to politics - started his campaign saying he was open to lifting the long-standing embargo on trade with Cuba.
In January, he said on Fox News that he was in favor of "opening it up" with Cuba, but wanted a better "deal" than Obama had made, comments he repeated in a debate with Republican rivals in March.
"I would want to make a strong, solid, good deal because right now, everything is in Cuba's favor," Trump said in March, saying he would "probably have the embassy closed" in Havana until a new deal was made.
When Obama visited Cuba later that month, Trump said in an interview with CNN that he "probably" would continue to normalize economic and diplomatic relations with Cuba, and would even open a Trump hotel in Cuba if the conditions were right.
"I think Cuba has certain potential, and I think it's OK to bring Cuba into the fold, but you have to make a much better deal," he said, noting he was worried Cuba would sue the United States for reparations for damage caused by its decades-long embargo on Cuba.
Cuba policy was not part of a major foreign policy address Trump delivered in April. After he secured his party's nomination, his position shifted to a more traditional Republican position.
At a Miami rally in September, Trump said he would roll back Obama's Cuban policy reforms unless Cuban leaders allowed religious freedom and freed political prisoners.
"The next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands," Trump told supporters.
His vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, also took a hard line. "Let me make you a promise," Pence said in Miami just days before the election. "When Donald Trump is president of the United States, we will repeal Obama's executive orders on Cuba."
On Saturday, Pence tweeted: "The tyrant Castro is dead. New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!"
PRESSURE FROM REPUBLICANS
Trump will face pressure to reverse Obama's orders on Cuba from a bloc of mostly Republican Cuban-American lawmakers that has worked to keep tight restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba for years.
They believe Cuba's government is still too repressive to ease economic and travel restrictions.
"The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not," said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American who ran against Trump to be the Republican presidential candidate.
"The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights."
But some Republicans want to continue with Obama's opening. U.S. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leading Republican anti-embargo voice, said on Saturday that "more frequent and consequential ties between Cubans and Americans" would more likely boost income and sap the strength of the Castro government.
Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents a Tampa, Florida, district with a significant Cuban population, said she thinks Castro's death could make it easier for the Trump administration to change its Cuba stance.
“While Fidel Castro was alive, there was an emotional impediment for greater engagement" from the Cuban exile community in Miami, Castor told Reuters. “That emotional impediment now is gone," she said.
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla., and Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott in Washington; Editing by Bill Rigby and Jonathan Oatis)