The meeting of Central American presidents in San Jose', Costa Rica, a week ago brought important gains to the democratic cause in the region and could help us recast our own policy on a sound bipartisan base.

The four presidents of the Central American democracies showed far more mettle than was predicted of them. The democratic presidents:

refused to extend again the deadline for compliance with the Arias plan;

took responsibility for verification and compliance into their own hands and eliminated the role of others more susceptible to political pressures: the U.N., Panama and Mexico;

brushed aside the argument that a policy of containment can be applied to Nicaragua. Their stated objective is democratization now;

rejected Daniel Ortega's claim that U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan resistance is the principal obstacle to fulfillment of the Arias plan. They said the contra uprising was a reaction to Sandinista repression and called on Nicaragua to end the war by keeping its promises to democratize.

For their part, the Sandinistas stated publicly that their latest concessions were designed to persuade Congress to end aid to the contras, thus ending the fiction that the resistance forces only serve to undermine U.S. policy goals. Yet while Ortega in San Jose' was trumpeting loudly to the world his latest good intentions to democratize, his state security police in Nicaragua were arresting the leaders of the democratic opposition, including the editor of La Prensa, sending a very different message to his own people.

Cardinal Obando y Bravo reports that "there is talk of democratization, but it has not happened." The leader of the opposition Independent Liberal Party, Virgilio Godoy, says: "I am afraid this is just another act of theater designed for the outside world."

How should the United States respond constructively to these developments? I believe we should and can both support the Central American peace process and sustain the Nicaraguan resistance while the Sandinista regime's promises are put to the test. To do so, each side in our overly partisan and ideological domestic debate should concede that the other's position has proved to contain an element of truth: the combination of regional diplomacy and the increasing pressure of the contras together have brought progress and should guide our future action.

Both the administration and Congress should avoid seeking a narrow victory in an up-or-down vote Feb. 3 on a large new installment of military aid. Instead, we should seek bipartisan support for a new policy that includes the best elements of both regional diplomacy and military pressure.

The United States should reaffirm its strong support for the Central American peace accords and the principle stated by its author, Oscar Arias: "Without democracy there can be no peace in Central America."

The United States should provide additional assistance for a cooperative regional economic development effort among those Central American nations that have complied with the democratization provisions of the Arias plan. Let the Central American democracies recommend to the United States whether Nicaragua should be eligible.

A reasonable amount of U.S. assistance for Nicaragua should also be appropriated, but these new funds, and any remaining military aid still left over from previous appropriations, should be suspended for 30 days.

After that period, both new and old funds should be used for economic and civic development, through the Conference of Bishops, if either the president certifies or Congress under expedited procedure affirms by majority vote not subject to veto that:

a) the Sandinistas and the resistance have met directly and made serious progress toward a cease-fire;

b) the Nicaraguan government has released all remaining political prisoners under a general amnesty and permitted them to return to full participation in civic and political life;

c) the people of Nicaragua are enjoying full freedom of the press and mass communications, speech, religion, association, movement, trade union activity and other recognized democratic liberties; and

d) the Sandinista front has relinquished its centralized political control of the armed forces, security police, the judiciary, the trade union movement and food rationing.

Those four criteria were specifically cited by the House of Representatives Dec. 8 by a vote of 346-58 as standards for judging Nicaragua's compliance with the Central American peace accords. They also conform closely to the demands adopted by the Nicaraguan civic opposition in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 5.

If the government of Nicaragua fails to meet these four standards for democratization within the period provided, the funds appropriated should be released to sustain the Nicaraguan resistance. If the Sandinistas do meet these criteria at any time in the process, the funds should instead be used to rebuild Nicaraguan civic and economic life.

Something is happening in Central America, and those of us in the United States need to learn from it. The democratic leaders in the region have stood up in a broad, united front to press for full democratization in Nicaragua now. We need to do the same instead of diverting world attention onto our domestic partisan divisions.

Inside Nicaragua, thousands of courageous trade unionists, religious leaders, peasants and ordinary citizens, struggling to free the democratic genie from the bottle of Sandinista state control, depend on our constancy of purpose to sustain their struggle for democracy. We must not let them down.

To throw away unilaterally on Feb. 3 either the promise of regional diplomacy, which has given such heart to Central America's democrats, or the pressure of the Nicaraguan resistance, the driving force for Sandinista concessions unthinkable just a few weeks ago, is to leave Central America's democrats and the United States no serious options for the future short of capitulation or wider hostilities. Instead, we should unite behind a sustainable, bipartisan policy and give both peace and democracy a chance in Central America. The writer, former governor of Virginia, has led several delegations to Central America on behalf of Central American Peace and Democracy Watch.