Breaking Down the Barriers

We often hear that technology is changing the world, but perhaps more to the point, technology is making the world a smaller place. Social media is breaking down political barriers and geographical borders, bringing people together in an unprecedented groundswell, even in countries such as Cuba that have been off limits for decades.

As a senior leader at a large networking company, I am frequently called upon to tell the story of how we can change the world by connecting the unconnected. The real impact of social media was made very personal for me last year, with the death of my father and a Facebook post to observe his passing- a favorite picture of the two of us when I was a college freshman.

My family comes from Cuba, where I was born. In 1962, as the Castro regime was in full swing, my father lost his small business to the regime, and our family, like so many others at that time, fled our native island and immigrated to Florida. We left behind most of our living relatives, and my father never saw or spoke to his two brothers during the remainder of his life. One of those brothers joined Castro’s revolution, working for the government until his death. The other remained a hard working manager of a hardware store. For half a century, the only relatives I knew were my immediate family members. In those pre-Internet days, the world was a much larger place, and borders—whether political or geographical—were true dividers.

My father’s passing raised questions for me: I knew that I had other family in Cuba, and I felt compelled to find a way to locate and connect with those we had left behind. Who knew that the photo I had posted on Facebook at the time of his death would allow me to do just that. It wasn’t long before my friends, and friends-of-friends within my social network, came together to help me put the pieces in place.

Having started with almost no information other than names and a few details, in a matter of weeks, I made an amazing discovery: I had a cousin named Michael, whose existence was news to me, and Michael had also relocated to the U.S. only months before. But it got better. Unbelievably, not only did he live near my family home in Florida, but he also worked in the same Miami office building as the one where my company’s office is located. In fact, his office was on the same floor, right next to mine. We had probably passed each other in the hallway—which is exactly where I finally made his acquaintance.

Once I had met Michael, I quickly began to connect with other family members in Cuba, including Michael’s brother Mario and his young family. Although Internet access remains extremely limited and connection speeds there are abysmal, my relatives in Cuba are among the “privileged” in light of their government connections. It may take hours to download a single photo, but having that Internet connection is a luxury they are willing to wait for.

The discovery has been life changing for me. Even though it was disappointing to learn that my two distant and estranged uncles had died, over the past year my extended family circle has expanded to an entire group of cousins and second cousins. We connect via social networks, sharing news, history, and pictures. When I look at the Facebook pages of my cousins’ teenaged children in Cuba, one thing strikes me: across the miles, the government embargos, and the political barriers, we are the same people.

This vignette is a testament to the power of the Internet. It is a leveler and an equalizer, and a tremendous tool for bringing people together, whether for family reunions or for social or political change.

Social media has the power to connect those who have been left behind, whichever side of a political wall or geographical border we happen to be on. Applications such as Twitter and Facebook now serve as enablers of political change, and as lifelines during natural disasters. When the Egyptian government cut off access to social networks in 2011 during a period of violent strife, it was a global acknowledgment of the extreme influence that the Internet can have to unite people for a common cause. That same year, when a major earthquake shook Japan, tweeters in that country alerted people on the western shores of North America that a potentially deadly tsunami was on its way, hours before the news media covered the story.

Around the world, researchers have conducted extensive studies about social media and Internet usage. Through them, we have learned one resounding theme about ourselves: all of us want to be connected, and we look for ways to create, join, and be part of communities. Even in oppressed, communist Cuba. Even over the slowest network connections imaginable. The world will no longer settle for remaining unconnected, and geographic or political barriers will no longer divide our communities. My family was only one of many who were torn apart by the Cuban revolution. A different kind of revolution, enabled by networking technology, is now allowing these families to come together again, even facilitating the healing of old wounds. I encourage all whose families may have been divided to harness the incredible power of these new tools.

Our global community is growing now as more Cubans find a way to connect to the Internet. It is now my hope that the U.S. government can view social media as a path to democracy. I firmly believe in the power of connecting the unconnected. The way to open societies that have been closed is not through obsolete embargos, but through the liberty that results from the equalizing power of Internet access and social media.

Angel Mendez is the Senior Vice President, Cisco Transformation, at Cisco Systems