Like many of Mexico's 3 million bureaucrats, Jos'e Luis Delgado got his job the old-fashioned way: His uncle gave it to him. In the past, such family connections would have assured him career advancement. But this year, with proposed budget cuts looming over next week's change in government, the young lawyer is not sure whether he can parlay that patronage into another step up the bureaucratic ladder.
``Lots of bureaucrats are worried,'' says Mr. Delgado, who has worked with three government agencies as a trabajador de confianza - a ``trusted'' political appointee. ``These days we feel more like `trabajadores de DESconfianza,' because we may soon be unemployed.''
Some 90,000 political appointees - from Cabinet ministers to low-level secretaries and chauffeurs - will dutifully resign today, the last day of President Miguel de la Madrid's administration.
Many of these appointees already have new jobs lined up in the next administration, thanks to their political ties. But for those still in limbo, these days are marked by frantic phone calls to old contacts or anxious meetings with the powerful new associates of President-elect Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
No other bureaucracy in the world undergoes such a reshuffling ritual every six years. And this year's transition is more unsettling than ever.
Like most Mexicans, long-privileged civil servants have been stung by six years of economic crisis. President de la Madrid, vowing to ``modernize'' the ponderous bureaucracy, used the crunch to eliminate thousands of government jobs. His administration also cut the public payroll by selling off dozens of state-owned companies.
Today, prospects are darkened by persistent rumors that Mr. Salinas will use the transition to lower the boom on the bureaucracy: cutting personnel and eliminating nonessential agencies.
It's not clear whether Salinas, who won the July 6 election by the slimmest margin of victory in the 59-year history of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), can afford to alienate this crucial base of political support. But bureaucrats are so worried about possible recortes, or cuts, that they half-jokingly refer to the President-elect as Carlos Salinas ``Recortari.''
The only sure method to avoid getting lost in the shuffle is to cultivate influential contacts. In the past month, normal bureaucratic activity has stalled as many federal employees court political contacts over ``power'' breakfasts or three-hour lunches.
Some government offices run ``pools'' where employees bet on picks for top Cabinet posts. The game has its serious side. For in such a secretive political system, the rumors give the first indication of what to expect from Salinas's administration. And they often directly affect the career of even the lowliest bureaucrat.
Take the case of Rosario Laparra Chacon. The 19-year-old secretary in the Social Security administration was hired more than a year ago by her uncle, office manager Manuel de Jes'us Becerra. Mr. Becerra has old political ties that link him to the political following of current PRI president Jorge de la Vega Dom'inguez.
Despite the fortunate connection, Miss Laparra has been nervous about her future. Mr. de la Vega, after all, is an old-style politician who recently has been upstaged by the new generation of Salinas associates. His ability to provide jobs for political loyalty seems weakened.
So last week, when Laparra learned that de la Vega would likely be named Agriculture Minister, she could breathe easy: She would have no problem getting a job that would let her spend most mornings at the National University pursuing a law degree - and making new contacts.
``That's the way the system works,'' says Laparra. ``It's very difficult to advance by hard work alone. It's much easier to go by way of friends.''
Most aspiring politicians and bureaucrats start climbing the political ladder the minute they enroll in the university.
The 40-year-old Salinas rose quickly after winning the favor of his economics professor, current President de la Madrid. Salinas's right-hand man, Manuel Camacho Solis, landed his first important party post as a well-connected, 19-year-old university student.
Laparra doesn't have such high aspirations, but she's working hard to make the right connections. With de la Vega's career ``on the decline,'' she says, it's important to hitch onto a rising star.
At the university, for example, she rubs elbows with the sons of the current Budget Minister, the current Mexico City mayor, and the ex-president of the Inter-American Development Bank. The nephew of ex-president Jos'e L'opez Portillo (1976-82) recently invited her to dinner, an honor that she hopes will someday have its political rewards.
For a bureacrat's career, making contacts is often more important than working efficiently. Especially now. As bureaucrats scramble for new jobs, the rest of Mexico waits restlessly for the bureaucrats.
Swarms of people have descended on government offices in these last weeks preceding tomorrow's inauguration, trying to get official stamps and signatures before their cases get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. Notoriously slow and capricious, the Mexican bureaucracy is even more frustrating on days like these.
The average citizen sometimes faces an unsavory choice: Either he beats the deadline by paying a bribe to a bureaucrat worried about several months unemployment or he waits for months to deal with a new official who has never heard of his case.