Venezuela says tops Latin America mobile connections

CARACAS, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Venezuela will close 2007 with one of the highest cell phones penetration rates in Latin America, driven by a surge in sales after price cuts at a newly nationalized media firm, the government said on Wednesday.

Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacon said the South American country of 27 million people would have about 23.5 million cell phone lines by the end of the year.

Venezuela has set a goal of adding three million lines in the next 12 months.

“It has been the best year for the telecoms sector in history,” Chacon told reporters.

Chile says its cell phone penetration now stands close to 90 percent.

Chacon said Venezuela was No. 1, but his figure put the penetration rate at about 86 percent.

Some European countries now have more mobile phones than people.

The Venezuelan connections are driven by several factors, but the trend took off in 2005, when Spain's Telefonica TEF.MC entered the market and drove down prices.

This year, the socialist government pushed equipment and call rates down further after nationalizing telecommunications firm CANTV. Chacon said CANTV’s mobile unit Movilnet has recorded one million new connections since May.

Oil-rich Venezuela has a large population of poor people despite being one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America and enjoying a boom in crude prices.

Lower prices for cell phones have allowed many of the poor to own a telephone for the first time in a country where companies have been slow to invest in fixed lines.

Oil wealth has lubricated the tropical nation’s economy in recent years, encouraging a consumer boom.

Latin America's top mobile company America Movil AMX.NAMXL.MX does not do business in Venezuela. The parent of the Mexican firm tried to buy CANTV but was pushed aside by the government's nationalization. (Reporting by Fabian Andres Cambero; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)