HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama praised dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez and said in a posting on her website on Thursday that he looks forward to the day "all Cubans can freely express themselves."
The U.S. leader, in responses to questions on Sanchez's "Generation Y" site, also repeated his desire to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, saying he wants "direct diplomacy" with Cuba and could visit the Communist-ruled island.
"The United States has no intention of using military force in Cuba," Obama wrote in a reply. "Only the Cuban people can bring about positive change in Cuba and it is our hope that they will soon be able to exercise their full potential."
Obama's comments broke no new ground on U.S. policy toward Cuba. Relations between Washington and Havana soured after Fidel Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution and were further strained when he pushed Cuba toward the Soviet bloc.
The United States maintains a 47-year-old trade embargo on the Caribbean nation.
But the unusual written exchange -- Sanchez wrote that she sent questions to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro -- added to the blogger's international stature as a leading dissident voice in Cuba.
"Your blog provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba. It is telling that the Internet has provided you and other courageous Cuban bloggers with an outlet to express yourself so freely," Obama wrote.
"The government and people of the United States join all of you in looking forward to the day all Cubans can freely express themselves in public without fear and without reprisals," he said.
A spokesman for the White House National Security Council confirmed that Obama had written Sanchez.
Raul Castro, however, has not responded, according to Sanchez, 34, who has won several international awards and was named by Time Magazine last year as one of the world's 100 most influential people.
She is among a growing group of young Cubans who have taken to the Internet to express their desire for change in Cuba.
Her blog often describes the hardships of life in Cuba and criticizes the repression of dissent by the government, which has made clear its distaste for her. Havana views dissidents as mercenaries working for the United States and other countries.
Sanchez said two weeks ago that she was detained and roughed up by state security agents in what she believes was a Cuban government message to quiet her criticism.
The Cuban government has said nothing about the incident, but the U.S. State Department said it expressed its "deep concern" to Havana. Obama did not mention it in his reply.
Obama pointed out to Sanchez what he said were steps to improve relations with Cuba, including an easing of the trade embargo and the initiation of talks on migration and postal service.
But he has said further normalization of relations depends on Cuba making progress on human rights and releasing political prisoners.
Raul Castro, who replaced ailing older brother Fidel Castro as president last year, has said Cuba is willing to talk to the United States about anything, but that it will make no unilateral concessions to its long-time enemy.
"I have said that it is time to pursue direct diplomacy without preconditions, with friends and foe alike. I am not interested, however, in talking for the sake of talking," Obama told Sanchez.
Asked if he would be willing to travel to Cuba, Obama said, "I would never rule out a course of action that could advance the interests of the United States and advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people," he said.
Sanchez has a larger international audience but is little known in Cuba where Internet access is limited.
She asked Obama whether the U.S. trade embargo was to blame for Cuba's lack of Internet, to which he pointed out that he had lifted restrictions on U.S. telecommunications companies that want to offer service there.
"These are small steps but an important part of a process to move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new and more positive direction," he said of his policy.
"Achieving a more normal relationship, however, will require action by the Cuban government."
(The website is www.desdecuba.com/generaciony/)
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Jane Sutton and Paul Simao