The Central American peace accord signed in Guatemala last August was a plan, not just an expression of good intentions. It committed its signatories, the five presidents of Central America, to establish authentic democratic processes and carry out national reconciliation. A time frame for compliance was provided. Then time ran out.

When the presidents met in Costa Rica a week ago to examine the question of compliance, it was clear to all (except possibly Daniel Ortega) that Nicaragua had not fulfilled its promises. There had been no general amnesty, no cease-fire, no internal reconciliation. Controls over speech, press and assembly had been relaxed, but freedom in all domains remained sharply limited. Central America's presidents said as much. Now they said Nicaragua must either comply or give up the pretense, and must do so at a time when the U.S. Congress would be considering continued aid to the contras.

The pressure precipitated an interesting and often contradictory scramble in Nicaragua that has already produced new promises, new punitive actions and new proposals for peace talks. The Sandinista response -- including its latest proposal Thursday for urgent talks with the contras -- makes it clear the Nicaraguan government does not relish the choice with which it has been confronted.

The contradictory actions of the Sandinistas were reflected in last week's headlines. ''Nicaragua Cancels State of Emergency,'' The Washington Post announced on Page 1 of its Jan. 17 edition. ''Five More in Nicaraguan Opposition Are Arrested by the Security Police,'' The New York Times said on the same page on the same day. Both headlines were accurate.

On the same day that Managua announced the lifting of a state of emergency, police arrested leaders of Nicaragua's democratic trade unions, private sector, independent press and democratic political parties. They were interrogated for some 36 hours and released.

This was not the first time opposition leaders were arrested at the same time the government sought to convince the world of its democratization. It also happened eight days after the signing of the accords, when the Nicaraguan government forcibly broke up a peaceful demonstration and arrested Lino Hernandez, director of the independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights, and Alberto Saborio, president of the Nicaraguan Bar Association. Both arrests were clearly designed to intimidate.

Now Hernandez, Saborio and 10 associates once again are victims of the Sandinista desire to proclaim freedom and control its use.

It is not the only contradiction. An amnesty was declared for 3,500 political prisoners providing they are accepted by the United States. While the state of emergency was lifted and the constitution restored, the official newspaper Barricada warned that the restoration of civil rights ''should not be misinterpreted as a blank check for irresponsibility and subversion.''

''They are telling us that this is their style of democracy,'' said La Prensa Director Violetta Chamorro, whose brother-in-law, La Prensa editor Jaime Chamorro, was arrested.

Is this ''style of democracy'' acceptable to the U.S. congressmen who have tied their support for aid to the contras to Nicaragua's compliance with the Central American accords? The vote is scheduled for the first week in February, and some Democratic leaders have indicated they will make an all-out effort to block further aid to the contras. They call their policy ''a risk for peace.''

But it is necessary to ask what is being risked.

The most recent Sandinista proposal for peace talks is clearly designed as a further measure to influence the U.S. Congress against providing additional aid. Still, Congress cannot avoid the fundamental questions -- which are unchanged by the Sandinistas' latest overture.

Is there a chance for democracy in Nicaragua without continued pressure on these would-be totalitarians?

Is there a chance for peace in El Salvador while the Sandinista regime rules Nicaragua?

Is there a chance for economic development in Central America while the region is thus afflicted by repression, revolution and civil war?

Is there any good reason for Democrats who do not desire a Communist Central America to oppose aid to the contras?

But opponents of aid have a question of their own: Is it morally justifiable for those who believe in peace and democracy to support the use of force by Nicaraguans against the Nicaraguan government?

El Salvador's president, Jose Napoleon Duarte, provided the answer to this last question in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly:

''Force can only be acceptable,'' Duarte argued, ''when there are no institutional processes available to open the political system, and then should only be used for the purpose of opening that system.''

Supporters of democracy must agree. There still remain no institutional processes through which internal or external opposition to the Sandinistas can effectively participate in the country's political system. It is therefore up to Congress to help the rulers of Nicaragua understand that democracy is their only alternative.