''In Nicaraguan culture much more importance is placed on one's ability to shine in the major media markets abroad than in the sorry shallow outlets at home,'' Arturo Cruz Jr. writes in The New Republic (Nov. 16). ''To be known among one's own tribe is no particular accomplishment. What is important is to maintain one's pertinence abroad,'' says the distinguished Nicaraguan-in-exile.

If Nicaraguans are all that interested in world attention, they must feel pleased indeed with Daniel Ortega. In less than a decade Ortega not only has established his preeminence over the eight other theoretically equal Sandinista comandantes but has known how to project himself onto the world stage and into the world press -- including The New York Times, where he was most recently photographed alongside Erich Honecker, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and other big-time communist leaders in Moscow to hear and cheer the Soviet anniversary celebration.

Ortega is not the first leader of a small, poor Central American country who has wanted to link his nation's struggle to global political processes and purposes. Most major Central American parties have tried to interest the world in their struggle through ties with Socialist International or the Christian Democratic International. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias' Nobel Prize testifies to their success.

Today the whole political world has heard of the Arias plan for Central American peace. This global interest must be satisfying to the leaders and peoples of these countries that were so long ignored, disdained and even despised by great powers that could not be bothered to learn the names of Central American states.

It is time the world took notice. But as Cruz's comment suggests, there are pitfalls. There is a danger that, at this crucial moment in the history of Central America, the glare of international attention may distract Central American leaders from the hard realities of their concrete situation. This is the moment at which the governments of Central America must ask themselves (and tell the rest of us) how the peace plan is actually working.

That plan differs in crucial respects from all other peace proposals offered for this troubled region. It is more interesting and more promising.

It gives priority to democracy with its centerpiece of ''an authentic democratic process.'' It commits each government to provide within 90 days of signature free expression and free association -- including the right of radio and television stations and newspapers to operate without censorship or intimidation. It recognizes the right of political parties and others to organize marches, meetings and demonstrations geared toward the free elections that each president promised to his people.

The peace plan reflects the belief widely held throughout the region that the future of Central America -- its security and development -- depends on Nicaragua's becoming a democracy. Although the Arias plan does not require free elections in Nicaragua until 1990 and does not require that the Sandinista government share power or dismantle the infrastructure of repression before the resistance is disbanded, it does require that the Nicaraguan government provide full and prompt respect for democratic freedoms. It bets that freedom has its own momentum, which, once established, can carry Nicaragua through to free elections.

As Susan Purcell points out in her recent penetrating analysis in Foreign Affairs, the Arias plan ''gives a big advantage to the Sandinistas,'' but takes major risks because Arias and his fellow democratic presidents were determined ''to test once and for all the Sandinistas' willingness to democratize.'' Purcell continues: ''When asked what would happen if the Sandinistas did not carry out democratic reforms, {Arias replied} that the world would then know what the Sandinistas were really like.''

But it is not the world that will suffer the direct consequences if the Sandinistas fail to comply. It is the people of Central America.

Repeated polls in Central American countries outside Nicaragua (which of course does not permit public opinion polls) show that large majorities believe Nicaragua is governed by a repressive regime that rules by force, is opposed by its own people and constitutes a threat to other countries in the region. The same large majorities believe it would be better for Nicaragua and the region if the resistance wins. Still larger majorities approve U.S. military and humanitarian aid to the contras.

Eventually Oscar Arias and the other presidents will have to face Sandinista realities. So far they have only taken bows on the world stage. Arias has won additional applause for saying he will ''never'' support the use of force (read contras) in Nicaragua. But if the resistance is dismantled and the Nicaraguan military regime is left intact, there will be no peace, no stability, no development and finally no freedom in Central America -- not in El Salvador, nor in Guatemala, nor in Costa Rica.

Now, with the need to report on compliance with the plan, it is the moment of truth for Central America's presidents. The consequences of their decisions will be felt in the daily lives of Central Americans long after the world's attention has moved on to some other political melodrama.