Nicaragua's neighbors are increasingly recognizing Sandinista strategy for what it is: a plan to spread revolution and destroy the fragile openings toward democracy that constitute the single most hopeful development in Latin America in decades. In the last year alone, Colombia accused Nicaragua of supplying arms to the M-19 guerrillas; El Salvador's President Duarte accused the Sandinistas of direct complicity in his daughter's kidnapping; and all of Latin America took notice when a car en route from Nicaragua to El Salvador crashed in Honduras, revealing a cargo of munitions, communication equipment and personal letters from the communist bloc for El Salvador's FMLN guerrillas.

Now that the Soviets have two clients, Cuba and Nicaragua, aiding communist insurgencies in the region, the problem is guaranteed to grow. When these guerrillas gain strength in any country, they undermine democratic government long before they are capable of taking power. Their attacks and the authorities' response create a debilitating atmosphere of random violence, destroying the economy and bolstering the ever-present argument that military rule is the only way to guarantee order.

How, then, do we respond to the Sandinistas? They are skilled practitioners of power politics who took and consolidated power by force, rule by repression and now assist their fellow revolutionaries. They should be met with a response that speaks to them in their own terms. This means approval of President Reagan's request for $100 million in aid to the Nicaraguan democratic resistance, and it means the provision of whatever additional assistance is necessary to enable this movement to win its fight and fulfill the promise of the 1979 revolution that ousted Anastasio Somoza.

Some would argue that such uncompromising pressure isn't necessary, and we need more time for the Contadora process to work. But negotiations have been in motion for years without achieving the first step toward a meaningful settlement, which is to bring the Sandinistas to the table to negotiate with their domestic opposition. The Sandinistas reject this suggestion every time it is made. They ignored it when leading Congressional Democrats made it in 1983, and they censored the Archbishop's 1984 Easter pastoral letter containing a call for national reconciliation. Last year, when President Reagan endorsed the contras' offer of a cease-fire pending a negotiated settlement, Nicaragua's foreign minister described it as an offer to "drop dead -- or we'll shoot you." Such negotiations could lead to the death of one-party rule in Nicaragua, and that is why the Sandinistas fear them. That is also why Nicaragua proposed a five month suspension of the Contadora talks at the Organization of American States General Assembly meeting two months ago. Nicaragua's proposal was voted down 28-1.

The Sandinistas survived years of struggle against Somoza, and they have survived the challenge of a poorly equipped, but growing, insurgency. They know they can survive diplomatic isolation -- after all, Cuba has done so, and has used the time to consolidate political control at home and build the infrastructure for regional terror and subversion. Under current circumstances, the Sandinistas know that time is on their side.

But they also realize that the contras are the largest insurgency in Latin America, far larger than any communist insurgency that has ever appeared. The contras grew even when U.S. assistance was cut off completely. With a commitment of new aid, the 20,000 contras now in the field would gain military strength and new recruits. Such a challenge will carry more weight with the Sandinistas than any amount of diplomatic protests or bad publicity on human rights.

Will Latin American governments support our policy? At the OAS last December, they rejected Nicaragua's call for condemnation of our trade embargo. As for our aid to the contras, support is limited to private comments by diplomats and other officials who know that we provide the only tangible source of pressure on the Sandinistas -- pressure without which the Sandinistas would see no reason at all to negotiate. At present, Latins have every reason to hedge their bets. They see our commitment as tentative, and know that if we abandon the contras, they will be left to deal with forces that receive a larger and more constant stream of Soviet bloc aid than that which we give to our democratic friends in the region.

Latin Americans don't deserve to be abandoned to a future of subversion, and Nicaraguans needn't face a future of increasing totalitarian repression. Our policy can succeed and win regional support if we make an unequivocal, long-term commitment to the establishment of democracy in Nicaragua, through negotiations or through the victory of the democratic resistance. We should leave to the Sandinistas the choice of how this democracy is brought into being.