Do you want to dismiss the hopes of the people of Nicaragua for democracy? Do you want to leave in Nicaragua a permanent base for subversion, with the weakening of neighboring democracies that inevitably ensues? These are the questions the Reagan administration puts to its critics. They are hard but fair.

The start of an honest answer is to concede that the administration may be right. Whatever their complaints against others, the Sandinistas have not earned the trust of fair-minded people. They promised democracy and grabbed power. They have not left their neighbors alone. The administration has good claim for concern.

The notion that a negotiated solution is within reach, moreover, is not self-evident. Other instances of peace between Marxist and non-Marxist factions, each supported by a great power, are few and far between. Portugal, not a precise analogy, comes to mind, and then the mind wanders. There is probably more historical evidence behind the article of conservative faith that such compromises are not possible than there is behind the article of liberal faith that they are.

So a difficult burden of proof falls on those who think that the Sandinistas can yet be fitted into the pluralism- and-coexistence program of Contadora. This program was updated in the "Caraballeda message" that the foreign ministers of seven democratic Latin nations plus thug-ruled Panama brought to a disbelieving Secretary of State George Shultz last week.

Not all the administration's American critics accept that burden. Some carry a memory of American guilt in Central America; others believe in the Sandinista revolution; still others are fatigued by the whole argument and prefer Reagan-bashing.

But the Caraballeda 8 do accept that burden. They have to. For them it is not a matter of posturing, although for some it is partly that. They fear a whirlpool generated by great-power involvement in the region. Their frail societies are vulnerable to the mad currents whipping out of Central America. Their stake -- civil balance and the hope of progress -- overwhelms the American stake of geopolitical convenience and prestige, considerations that smaller countries, which necessarily live on the margin, see as luxuries of a great power.

So while the administration focuses on support of the contras, the Caraballeda 8's softer line stresses smothering the combatants in a Latin political dialogue, counting on their shared Latin heritage to cut through Sandinista paranoia and rigidity, and promoting talks -- internal, regional and, most urgently, between Managua and Washington.

The thought nags the administration that the Latins are too soft to look Nicaraguan totalitarian rule in the eye. Officials fear that the Latins are letting Nicaragua hide behind the hemispheric standard of noninterference (meaning noninterference by the United States) and that the Latins do not intend to hold Managua to the companion standard of self-determination -- setting up a political system that the "population as a whole freely decides upon."

This is the Reagan administration's implicit rationale for resisting the Latins' common pleading and going forward with its own solitary policy. For all the Central Americans, including Nicaragua, support the Caraballeda appeal. Notwithstanding the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Central Americans are finding increasing occasions to talk with each other. The United States is holding itself aloof from a consultation that the Central American countries most directly threatened, and the other Latin countries most indirectly threatened, urge it to join.

The administration believes it is saving the Latins from themselves. They have better reason to believe they are showing the United States the way to avoid a policy disaster.

The immediate question is whether its difficulties on the home front may incline the Reagan administration to listen more closely. Now in its sixth year, it has so far failed to persuade most Americans either that the Sandinistas represent an intolerable menace or that the contras represent a moral imperative. The support it has been able to mobilize for the contras has not brought the reconciliation it says it pursues or any real prospect of military victory. The bottom may not be dropping out, but it's not going to be easily raised either.

Measuring this threat, Reagan promises to "go all out" for a level of military aid to the contras four times as great as the "humanitarian" aid being supplied now. An all-or-nothing challenge to Congress is contemplated. But it takes the president in the wrong direction. He should be letting the Latins show him how to accomplish his own worthy goals.