IT IS NOT easy to tell whether Nicaragua, in Sandinista hands, will go the Cuban way, which is not so different in many respects from the Somoza way, or whether it will find its path to a respectable and enduring pluralism. The different tendencies are there. It is possible to say, however, what the key indicators are. Do institutions independent of Sandinista control exist, and do they have a reasonable chance of hanging on? The private sector of the economy is one, the church is another and the press is a third. That is the context in which to assess the regime's suspension of La Prensa for two days a week ago.

For decades La Prensa has been the leading newspaper in Nicaragua. It was the assassination of its publisher in 1978 that became the catalyst of the revolution against Somoza family rule. Since the revolution, it has remained far and away the most popular paper in Managua, and the most critical. The particular source of trouble this time apparently was the reporting by the paper on government destruction of billboards bearing religious themes, official efforts to keep a critical radio station off the air and the roughing up of a journalist, among other things.

Unquestionably La Prensa is a thorn in the regime's side. Particularly is this so at a time when the economy is in desperate straits and sinking -- rice and beans have to be imported from, of all places, war-torn El Salvador -- and when respected observers like the Miami Herald's Shirley Christian can write that "a majority of Nicaraguans are disillusioned today with the young men they swept into power and would vote against them if given the change." A strong Marxist element in the leadership holds that, to the extent that any of the country's still-independent institutions decline to play the tame tabby, they should be intimidated or otherwise controlled. (The People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada, by the way, has just shown the way: it has simply banned the press for a year.)

At the same time, La Prensa is the most conspicious adornment of the regime, the badge of its continuing openness and its pluralist potential. Nothing would more loudly signal a decision by the Sandinista directorate to force Nicaragua down the Havana road than the muzzling of La Prensa. Was the suspension a test of whether the Sandinistas might get away with it?