Obama hardens stance over Cuba's crackdown on dissent

President Barack Obama, in his harshest censure of Cuba's repression of dissent, Wednesday said Havana had used "a clenched fist" against "those who dare to give voice to the desires of their fellow Cubans."

Obama also appeared to hint that his efforts to improve U.S. relations with the Raul Castro government have lost steam in the face of the recent string of tough actions by Havana.

"During the course of the past year, I have taken steps to reach out to the Cuban people and to signal my desire to seek a new era in relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba," said a four-paragraph statement released by the White House.

"I remain committed to supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas," he added, making no mention of a similar commitment to improved government-to-government relations.

The statement amounted to the president's harshest condemnation of Cuba since he was inaugurated. Last spring, he eased U.S. restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba and launched bilateral talks on immigration and direct mail service.

Obama's statement came a month after the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata following an 83-day hunger strike, and a week after security forces and pro-government civilians violently broke up a march in Havana by the Ladies in White, women relatives of jailed dissidents.

On Thursday in Miami, a five-block stretch of busy Calle Ocho will close to traffic to make way for a march led by singer Gloria Estefan in support of Cuba's Las Damas de Blanco, the Ladies in White.

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