The way the Latins speak of democracy makes some of us roll our eyes in quiet mockery of the emotion, floridness and hyperbole that are often on view. Yet this response not only does the Latins a considerable injustice but impedes an understanding of the most powerful force operating in Central America for peace.

I come to feel this way after talks with the four democratically elected presidents of Central America -- Arias of Costa Rica, Azcona of Honduras, Cerezo of Guatemala, Duarte of El Salvador. To hear them out is to be humbled by the qualitative difference between their conception of democracy and our own.

We take for granted a tradition, a structure, a continuity, an irreversibility that these men can only dream of. And they do dream of it -- not only dream of it but take immense personal, political and national risks to achieve it. Torture and the abduction of one's children, the ruin and very loss of one's nation: the risks are altogether beyond those that American politicians are called on to take.

It comes easily to us to think of ourselves as the mature teachers of democracy to the little child-nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, and we do have techniques and procedures they could find helpful. But they have uses for democracy that we have not known, and in their resourcefulness and their almost spiritual approach they have much to teach us.

In Central America the idea of democracy, of self-government, of taking responsibility for one's own destiny is the great mobilizing force of the emergence of these societies from a brutal and crippling past. It is the ideological weapon by which elected governments contest for the minds and the commitment of their citizens and the practical lever with which they hope to raise up their nations.

Sometimes the Latins are dismissed as frivolous for thinking they can wield moral pressure on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, whose Marxism and hunger for power appear to distance them from conventional moral appeals. But what I hear from the Central American presidents is that they count on Daniel Ortega to do just what he solemnly undertook to do in the peace plan -- to put aside dogma and start down a road leading to democracy.

Why would Ortega do that? In the presidents' collective view, because he is under heavy pressure, from the contras and from the Nicaraguan people. Because he owes it to his fellow Latins who in the peace plan gave his regime a precious measure of security and legitimacy and the political space in which to make its way toward a common regional destination of democracy. And because the democratic idea is transcendent, unstoppable, the idea of the age.

Is all this a bit, well, Latin? The ultimate moral pressure that the Latins hope to wield in the international arena is on us Americans, and the sharing of democratic values is the principal basis on which they intend to wield it. The presidents profess a large faith in America, and specifically in American devotion to hemispheric democracy. There may be an element of artifice in it, but it seems genuine enough to me, and it is certainly touching to behold.

There are hints that some of the presidents wish the political realities of their region were such as to let them openly espouse contra aid to keep the Sandinistas honest. But anything smacking of armed American-sponsored military intervention goes against the Latin grain. The consensus -- which meets the essential test of being publicly sustainable -- is that if the Managua regime again breaks its promise and leaves the democratic path, the proper stick is hemispheric isolation of Nicaragua, up to and including a blockade.

The specter that especially troubles the four Central American presidents is perhaps less that the Sandinistas will slip the pressure of the contras than that the United States will make a separate peace with Managua and take care just of its own security concerns -- ''containment.''

The suggestion that containment could include military and economic bolstering of Nicaragua's frail neighbors is taken as naive and unrealistic, something close to a formula for abandonment. In the Latin view, only by doing what is necessary -- no less, no more -- to bring about Nicaragua's own transition to democracy can the United States meet its obligations to the region's democratic cause. Who can say no to that?