It’s late in the game. The contest between a 200-year-old democratic republic and a 50-year-old dictatorship draws to an end.

This prolonged contest has pitted a team of weary, geopolitical lightweights against a far more powerful but frequently distracted opponent. Victory for the republic appears imminent. But spectators in the stands of the republic have grown impatient and want to rush the field. They seek to tear down the goal posts before victory is achieved.

A football analogy seems appropriate when analyzing the state of U.S.-Cuban relations and the debate swirling in the wake of the hand-off of leadership by Fidel Castro to brother Raul.

Paradoxically, there appears to be greater enthusiasm in some quarters of the U.S. for jettisoning the Cuba embargo than for sustaining the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Four points among many command our attention and remind us that it is not yet time to perform a victory dance:

Lifting the embargo will confer unmerited legitimacy on the communist regime of the Castro brothers. Raul may lack Fidel’s charisma and ego, he may be more tolerant of dissent and he may be less of a prima donna, but he will call the plays using Fidel’s playbook.

The communist, totalitarian system perfected between 1959 and the present regrettably remains firmly in place. The structures of power, dominance by a privileged, vanguard party, the planned economy, jails and prisons for political offenders, the omnipresent secret policeman and the inner censor keep Cubans tightly controlled.

Raul Castro won’t relax the rules of the totalitarian political game. Until he does, the U.S. shouldn’t remove its primacy sanction. The embargo remains as much as ever a matter of basic principle, a proportionate response to Cuban repression.

There is no indication that respect for human rights will improve under Raul. Cuba recently signed further United Nations human rights accords, something Fidel disapproved of because he knew that international agreements and covenants have a way of haunting tyrants.

Will the signing provide guarantees for "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," as prescribed? Cuba’s Codigo Penal (penal code) states that individuals may be prosecuted for any act committed in opposition to the norms and morals of socialism, i.e., for being in a dangerous state. Is Raul, as head of the Ministry of Interior, ready to foreswear this blanket tool of tyranny?

Lifting the embargo will not significantly benefit the prosperity and material well-being of the Cuban people. If the game were to end now, the chief beneficiaries would be the large business corporations with more capital than conscience.

Raul’s approved model of corporate business responsibility is a mining giant like Sheritt International of Canada, which makes a steady return on investment and asks no awkward political questions.

Many business leaders will find it convenient to deal with Raul and his profit-minded generals, who are able to deliver a cheap, docile and union-less work force. A genuinely free economy would mean competing centers of power, issues of ownership, entrepreneurship, independence and labor freedom for the Cuban people.

In an age of high-tech, innovation and globalizing commerce, Raul offers the dazzling promise of more market gardens, possibly the chance to become a repairman, an independent truck driver or a bed-and-breakfast operator. If the Cuban people have aspired for decades to own an automobile, the best they likely are to receive under Raul’s slow-paced "China model" of economic reforms and market openings will be a rickshaw.

Cuba’s major foreign backer, President Hugo Chávez, will do everything possible to sabotage any American entry into Cuba. In the past decade, Chávez has spent billions in propping up the Castro regime and advancing the socialist, anti-imperialist cause.

His oil subsidies, activism and anti-American agenda will continue to influence Raul and others and will be difficult to counter short of a real democratic change inside Cuba. U.S. taxpayers aren’t likely to replace the $2 billion to $4 billion in subsidies the regime currently receives from Venezuela.

The target of the embargo is the regime, the communist system, the officials, bureaucrats and order-takers in uniforms. Flexibility and pragmatism in dealing with human contacts, interactions between U.S. citizens and real, non-political Cubans, seeking a little improvement in their lives merits a graduated, compassionate review of visits, contacts and remittances.

Calling unconditionally for a normalized relationship with Raul Castro’s Cuba under the present conditions would be like advocating an unrestricted relationship between the U.S. and South Africa when the National Party was in power and Nelson Mandela languished in Robben Island or demanding that the East Germans stay put under communist rule with the Stasi intact once the Wall fell.

Is this the way most Americans wish to end the game?

Ray Walser is a Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).