By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's Communist Party will consider reforms this weekend that could impose term limits on its leaders in what would be a striking change on an island that Fidel Castro ruled for 49 years and was succeeded by his brother.
President Raul Castro said in an April Communist Party congress that this conference, which starts on Saturday and is the first in the party's history, would consider limiting Cuban leaders to two five-year terms.
The party has said it was also pondering age limits for high-ranking officials as it tries to bring younger people into its aging leadership.
Raul Castro is 80, his vice president Jose Ramon Machado Ventura is 81 and Fidel Castro, now mostly retired but still present behind the scenes, is 85. The younger Castro succeeded his older brother in February 2008 after 49 years as Cuba's defense minister.
Raul Castro admitted at the April event that the country's leaders had not done enough to find younger successors and said they had botched it when they tried.
He and other government officials are in a race against time to secure the gains of the revolution that put Fidel Castro in power in 1959.
Before they become too decrepit or die, they want to find replacements they consider loyal to the idea of keeping Cuba one of the world's last communist countries.
It has been speculated the party might put some new faces on display at the conference.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba expert at the University of Denver, told Reuters that term limits would have "democratizing effects" for the island.
"It creates a promise of an inter-generational changing of the guard with stability, since it reduces the possibilities of excessive accumulation of personal power and limits the advantages of the heads of state versus those individuals with different ideas," he said in an e-mail.
"It implies the airing of new ideas inside the system, while reducing the traumas of the retirement of older cadres."
The party conference comes amid economic reforms that have given Cubans the right to open small businesses and to buy and sell cars, but have not yet included political changes.
The Communist Party is the only legal political party in Cuba and, under a national constitution in effect since 1976, the supreme guiding force of the society and the state.
President Castro has said the party should be more separate from the government and that steps toward that would be considered at the conference.
After building up expectations with his comments in April, Castro tried to lower them in a recent chat with journalists, telling them there was no reason for "so many illusions with the conference, nor to raise expectations."
But his daughter, Mariela Castro, told reporters this week that opening up the political process was important to maintaining the Cuban system.
"Everything that facilitates processes of participation and renewal, but above all wide involvement of the population in the taking of political decisions, is what will guarantee socialism in Cuba," she said.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Christopher Wilson)