By Jeff Franks
They praised him for standing by them in what appeared to be a new, tougher turn for the president who has said he wanted to improve U.S.-Cuba relations that went bad after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and installed a communist system.
The Cuban government, which views dissidents as U.S.-employed subversives, has said nothing about Obama's statement, issued on Wednesday in Washington.
State-run press ran a column on Thursday by former leader Fidel Castro praising Obama for winning approval this week of healthcare reform, but pointing out that Cuba has had universal healthcare for more than 50 years. It appeared to have been written before the release of Obama's written statement.
Dissident hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, in a telephone interview from his hospital bed in the central city of Santa Clara, said Obama's declaration would not have an immediate effect, but would help isolate the Cuban government.
"That is very important, given that with a dictatorial, totalitarian government as exists here, one must not negotiate. You have to condemn and isolate dictatorships," he said.
Farinas, 48, was in the 29th day of a hunger strike seeking the release of 26 ailing political prisoners. He has vowed to die for his cause if necessary.
Obama called Cuba's human rights situation "deeply disturbing," citing the recent death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the "repression" of the dissident group Ladies in White last week during marches protesting the 2003 imprisonment of 75 government opponents.
Ladies in White
The women, wives and mothers of the those arrested in the 2003 crackdown were shouted down by government supporters and in one instance dragged by police into a bus as they walked through Havana for seven consecutive days.
"These events underscore that instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era, Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist," Obama said.
Obama called for the immediate release of Cuba's estimated 200 political prisoners.
"In name of the Ladies in White, I thank Obama for the statement criticizing the government," said Berta Soler, whose husband Angel Moya was arrested in the 2003 crackdown and is serving a 20-year sentence.
"It is very important to count on the solidarity of international personalities, and on Obama in particular, raising their voice asking for respect of human rights," she said.
Former political prisoner Oscar Espinosa Chepe also thanked Obama for the "strong show of support" and accused the government of rejecting Obama's overtures because "totalitarianism needs confrontation to justify repression."
Obama's has slightly eased the long-standing U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba by lifting restrictions on Cuban American travel to the island and initiating talks on migration issues and resumption of direct mail service.
He has pegged further progress to Cuba releasing political prisoners and improving human rights.
Cuba, which says it is the victim of 50 years of U.S. aggression, has complained that Obama has done too little to bring about rapprochement.
After a brief warming, relations turned rocky again when Cuba detained a U.S. contractor in December and accused him of working in "espionage services."
The contractor, Alan Gross, remains in jail without charges. The United States has said he was only in Cuba to expand Internet services for Jewish groups, but admitted he entered the island on a tourist visa that would not permit such work.
His work was funded under U.S. programs aimed at promoting democracy in Cuba, which Cuban leaders view as part of the long U.S. campaign to topple their government.
Obama did not mention Gross in his statement.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Esteban Israel; Editing by Tom Brown and Philip Barbara)