I was five or six years old back then. My brother was already a teenager. He loved creating and assembling things; he was a born engineer. I understood very little about his inventions; I was a born philosopher. One day he invited me to observe the launching of a project he had been working on for months. There was a huge rattletrap in the backyard on top of wooden shelves. “This better fly,” he said.

“Why?” I asked skeptically.

He looked at me with curiosity and started talking about the object’s origin, its elements, the struggle he had gone through to get this far, and, above all, about how absurd the failure of good ideas is. I don’t recall understanding any of it at the time, but I remember being convinced by his speech.

My brother walked slowly and decidedly toward his control panel—an improvised board with wires, buttons, and alarms—and he set the contraption off. “There are only two alternatives: either it takes off successfully or it collapses,” he said. After a brief pause he continued, “Both options are possible, even if they contradict each other. But anyway, that is how deceptive reality can be.” The plane took off, and I was filled with admiration for him.

It has been a long time since that day. For many years I forgot about it, but as I think about Mexico’s future, the memory returns.

• • •

Mexico is going through crucial and unprecedented times. It may take off or it may collapse. And I do not exaggerate or mean this rhetorically. Never before has Mexico had so many young people: nearly 30 million men and women aged 15–29, representing 26.4 percent of the country’s population. They are what we call in Mexico the “demographic bonus,” at first considered a great opportunity to enhance the country’s growth and development, and now a threat to its existence.

These extreme disparities are straining social cohesion.

Despite improvements in education—95 percent of the population has at least finished elementary school—and a relatively stable economy, most of these young adults are victims of the inequality and exclusion characteristic of Mexican society. In 2010, when the last census was taken in Mexico, 17.1 percent of the adolescents (15–17 years old) and 24.2 percent of the young adults living in Mexico did not go to school or have a job. Millions of them have been excluded from these key social institutions: learning and work. Young men and women, Mexico’s future, are being left without futures of their own.

Given these demographics, the only way for the country to avert disaster lies in achieving economic and social inclusion for young people. This is a very large challenge considering Mexico’s profound inequality: 52 million people, 46 percent of the population, live in poverty alongside the richest man on earth—Carlos Slim Helú. These extreme disparities are straining social cohesion.

If Mexico does not guarantee its young people a fair chance at success, it can expect a violent future.

A lot is said about violence in Mexico and deaths related to the “war against organized crime” that president Felipe Calderón started. The administration calculates about 40,000 deaths, and researchers estimate at least 60,000. But the cost of violence goes far beyond even those numbers. Thousands have been displaced or seen their lives otherwise destroyed.

The causes of the violence are diverse. Mexico’s proximity to the United States—the promised land for millions of immigrants crossing through Mexico, where the demand for drugs is high and arms sales policies are very liberal—is one problem. The corruption and judicial inefficiency are others. And social causes loom large: poverty and marginalization allow the creation of what the economist Ciro Murayama calls a “criminal reserve army.” Those who have no path into civilized society will likely look for recognition, acceptance, and economic resources elsewhere.

If Mexico does not prioritize policies that are grounded in human rights and that guarantee its young people a fair chance at success, it can expect a violent future. In contrast, if it can achieve that goal, there is a very big payoff: the demographic bonus will be a promissory note as young people age over the next few decades.

Can Mexico avert disaster and take off?

• • •

Pursuing a human rights–based agenda will require a huge shift, not least because public policies that guarantee the opportunity for a dignified life have an economic cost and are tied to a particular development model.

Since the 1980s, Mexico’s development model has been neoliberalism, characterized by a decrease in state intervention in the economy and an increase in exports. Without getting into an ideological debate, we can say that this model’s results have been mediocre. Mexico’s per capita GDP has grown less than 1 percent annually in the last 30 years, extreme poverty has declined only 2.6 percent in two decades, and the level of inequality did not budge between 1984 and 2010. The facts speak for themselves; this model must change. If we continue to favor neoliberalism, inequality and slow growth will turn our demographic bonus into a time bomb. Today, people older than 65 represent only 9 percent of Mexico’s population, but in the year 2050 they will represent 25 percent. A stable economy with plenty of international reserves isn’t much good if poverty is corroding our social fabric and creating a segregated society.

Moreover, in the unlikely event that Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, recognizes and promotes the public policies the country needs, it will be hard for him to implement his plans. Democratic transition in Mexico over the last 30 years has ironically made it more difficult to change course.

Mexico has a presidential regime and a federal system that resembles that of the United States. At the federal level, aside from the president, there is a bicameral Congress and a judicial power led by a Supreme Court of Justice. The country is divided into 31 federal entities and their capital, the imposing and impressive Distrito Federal. For more than 60 years, one party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), controlled all of the positions of federal power and, as a consequence, was able to control the judiciary as well.

In December 2012 the once-hegemonic party returned to the presidency after a twelve-year interregnum. Many worry about the comeback of the authoritarian system that once characterized PRI governance; I think that is not likely. Peña Nieto was elected with only a 38 percent plurality and took over an office constrained by a system of checks and balances that did not exist when the PRI ruled in the past.

The new government will also face a divided Congress—the PRI did not win a majority in either of the legislative chambers—and will have to answer to a Supreme Court with power and autonomy. Twelve states are governed by other political parties. In the capital, Mexico City, the left-wing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) has held power with decisive support since 1997. In last year’s elections, the PRD won 64 percent of Mexico City’s votes.

Pluralism is alive and well in Mexico, a fact that is reflected at all levels of government. This is good news because divided government serves as a defense against authoritarianism and other pathologies of concentrated power. However, it also makes political change difficult.

Any new agenda will face strong opposition, and the administration will have to negotiate with its opponents. The president will also have to navigate the checks and balances embedded in Mexico’s constitutional design, with an eye toward procedural rights and government transparency.

But PRI leaders need not become human rights evangelists or convert their political opponents to that cause in order to push through a new agenda. Pragmatic concerns will suffice. The PRI needs to convince opponents that an ambitious, socially inclusive human rights agenda is the only alternative to the failure of neoliberalism. Its roots are in the constitution itself, which already includes a great catalog of rights, from freedom of information to the right to sufficient healthful food. These rights were revised and strengthened by an amendment passed in June 2011.

Necessities, not convictions, have changed Mexican politics in the past. Only criminals will benefit from failure.

Indeed, human rights could be taken up as the key to the administration’s policy efforts. The first article in the constitution establishes a primary obligation of every authority to promote, respect, protect, and guarantee human rights. This requirement applies at every level of government, not just to the courts. If we accept that human rights are not only liberties, but also conditions that ensure dignified and autonomous lives for all, then the constitution supports the urgent need to guarantee the rights of all people, especially those who are being left out.

If we prioritize rights, there are four areas on which we should focus: fiscal policies that allow the state to raise the revenue needed for social programs; poverty alleviation and the provision of universal health care and improved education; reform of the justice system in order to eradicate impunity and assure security based on rights; and reform of telecommunications in order to reinvigorate existing regulation and break up the current media concentration. This last area of reform is necessitated by the diversity of Mexican society, which is little served by today’s monopolists.

These are not the only important reforms that could be implemented, nor the most popular with the media (energy reform, for example, gets a lot more press), but they are crucial for Mexico’s takeoff.

• • •

It is never easy for politicians to agree on policies. Tensions always exist between the governing party and its opponents. Despite the PRI’s victory, there is great skepticism toward the party and its current leader from both the right and left wings.

Foes have clustered together on the left. Before the 2012 presidential elections, a movement of student organizations (such as Yo Soy 132), radical communitarians (such as Atenco’s macheteros, who refuse to recognize Peña Nieto as President), civic organizations, and old-style unions opposed the PRI. The leader of this movement, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is a left-wing candidate who has twice been defeated in elections whose results he rejects. President Peña Nieto will thus face stubborn, perhaps intransigent, left-wing opposition.

There is also strong resistance to change among the president’s allies. Peña Nieto cultivated a sturdy alliance with groups and corporations that depend on the status quo. Two of them, Televisa and TV Azteca, control mass media. They will oppose any reforms that harm their interests. The same is true of the corrupt teachers’ union, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, which is officially allied with the new government. These organizations have real power and will resist change not on principle, but to maintain their privileges. These ruling-party allies are denounced, rightly, by López Obrador’s movement for hijacking the general interest in favor of their narrow demands.

Organized crime and the security apparatus will also resist change. In theory, criminals should be suppressed by public force (police and military), but in Mexico, the line between the two is vanishing. Criminals have infiltrated and corrupted security forces, and authorities have abused and ignored rights. Thus, the two purveyors of violence also favor the status quo; they both enjoy their current impunity.

Paralysis may benefit some figures in Mexico, but it could also bring about the country’s collapse. Inflexibility and pettiness surround the new government from the outside, while tying its hands from within. There is little room for optimism. However, as my brother would say, collapse is one of two options, neither of which is assured.

• • •

Optimism, no—but maybe hope. Forty years ago, no one would have put much faith in Mexican democratization. But it has happened. Political dynamics changed when the main players realized that authoritarianism was no longer viable. Hard political necessities, not convictions, made the transition possible. Like most democratic transitions, Mexico’s involved a few principled democrats and many unhappy but ultimately acquiescent politicians.

Something similar could happen with the human rights agenda. No one, with the exception of criminals, will benefit from the country’s failure. When key political forces understand this, the agenda—and the country—will take off. The recent signing of the “Pact for Mexico” by Peña Nieto and the opposition PRD is a first step in that direction.