Washington, D.C. – The United States must increase its focus on Latin America, because its future depends on it, said Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a two-day conference targeting moderate and conservative Latinos.
Gingrich said it behooves the United States to make sure that Latin America is financially, politically and socially stable.
Often singling out Mexico, Gingrich said: “For very practical reasons, I try to explain to Americans that Afghanistan is a long way away, Iraq is a long way away, Mexico is our immediate neighbor.”
“We have an enormous deep concern for the development, the prosperity, the rule of law in Mexico,” Gingrich said. “Mexico is central to the future of the United States.”
The conference host, The Americano, is a bilingual news and opinion site that Gingrich founded for Latinos who, as he said, are “center-right” in their views.
Gingrich, whose conference attracted Latinos from a wide range of fields, as well as officials representing various Spanish-speaking nations, said the United States was obliged to help Mexico, and other nations in Latin America, deal with its increasingly violent drug-trafficking problem.
“To whatever degree there is a drug problem in Latin America, it is caused by American purchases,” he said. “There are no innocent purchases of illegal drugs. Every purchase of illegal drugs sponsors a criminal.”
“We’re frankly not doing our share to make sure that the [drug] money doesn’t flow anywhere and that people aren’t getting rich over an American sickness.”
He stressed that the drug-related violence in Mexico is more critical “to the future of the United States than the conflict in Afghanistan.”
The other threat to Latin America and, by extension, the United States, are oppressive leaders like Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, in Cuba, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
"The United States has consistently underpaid attention to Latin America," he said. "We'd be dramatically better off if we had a Latin America without a Castro or Chávez."
Gingrich also spoke about helping Latin America realize its economic potential, and about being an overall better neighbor to the region.
“I strongly support NAFTA, and I’m happy to defend it anywhere in America,” he said. “Having prosperity and investment in Mexico is better than having the same investment in China or India, from an American perspective.”
“It’s better for us to be a country which helps the entire hemisphere grow rich and understand that if we grow rich together,” Gingrich said, “it turns out Mexico is also a great market for the United States just as Canada is a great market.”
“We have to extend that all across Latin America.”
Finally, Gingrich called for making it easier for people from other nations that are not known as threats to the United States to visit here.
He said that the process of getting a tourist visa, as well as the system for getting a guest worker visa and permanent residency, is unnecessarily bureaucratic and expensive.
Gingrich also said that illegal immigration would be best addressed in parts, instead of through a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
"We have to design a solution to the current problem of undocumented workers which gives us a reason to believe that within five to 10 years, everyone in the United States will be legal," he said, adding that he was not calling for amnesty.
"There's got to be some zone between deportation and amnesty," he said. "We are not going to deport 11 million people."
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.